Sanctioning Iran

The UN votes to approve economic sanctions on Iran, but the sanctions aren’t especially tough. “We don’t think this resolution is enough in itself,” says Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who’s almost certainly correct. Why didn’t a tougher package get through the Security Council?

The administration had pushed for tougher penalties. But Russia and China, which both have strong commercial ties to Tehran, and Qatar, across the Persian Gulf from Iran, balked. To get their votes, the resolution dropped penalties such as a ban on international travel by Iranian officials involved in nuclear and missile development.

To me, this is where the small matter of diplomacy enters the picture. I really don’t want to see the United States start a war with Iran, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to knock down paranoia about the Iranian nuclear program. Nevertheless, it is true at the end of the day that it would be strongly preferable for Iran to halt its quest for nuclear weapons. Under the circumstances, it would be good to be wielding tougher sanctions as a stick. That means not just throwing up our hands and saying “well, Russia and China have strong commercial ties to Iran” but also saying to ourselves, “there are probably some things that are more important to Russia and China than their commercial ties to Iran.” Find out what those are. Find out of those things are less important to us than is getting tougher sanctions on Iran. Maybe there isn’t a good deal to be cut here, but my guess is that there is. Similarly, sanctions and the threat of sanctions will work much better if the Iranians know that a grand bargain would be on the table were they interested in avoiding confrontation.

UPDATE: Incidentally, I would recommend Barry Posen’s Century Foundation paper as putting the problems posed by Iranian nuclearization in an appropriately non-alarmist perspective.