In their case for ever-more-severe measures against Iran, Washington hawks incessantly push the notion that sanctions aren’t “working,” with the obvious upshot being a need for more aggressive action against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. It’s something neoconservative pundits and other hawks hammer home on a nearly daily basis and a point that resonates with moderate analysts.
Constantly hitting on this theme, however, belies the complexity of various types of sanctions levied against Iran and their respective effectiveness. A new report from a UN experts panel appears to shed a little light on the misleading talking point.
According to the AP, which acquired a copy of the still-unreleased report, the eight-member expert panel convened to assess international sanctions concluded that:
sanctions have made it harder, costlier and riskier for Iran to acquire items needed for its banned nuclear and missile activities. […]
“Overall, the panel has found that sanctions are constraining Iran’s procurement of items related to prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile activity and thus slowing development of these programs,” the panel said.
The panel did note several caveats. Despite increased difficulties that have slowed its progress, Iran continues to use fronts to attempt and sometimes to acquire materials and equipment for its nuclear program. Furthermore, the panel acknowledges that sanctions are “not yet having an impact on the decision calculus of its leadership with respect to halting uranium enrichment.”
Nonetheless, contrast the UN expert panel’s nuanced position with a late-March post titled “Are sanctions really ‘working’?” by the Washington Post’s neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, who supports a military strike on Iran:
The administration consistently points to the international and unilateral Iran sanctions as proof of its effectiveness in thwarting the regime’s nuclear program. But the program hasn’t slowed and now we learn how ineffective, on its own terms, the sanctions legislation may be.
The UN panel casts doubts on Rubin’s unequivocal statement that “the program hasn’t slowed.” She conflates the international nuclear sanctions with the U.S.’s coordinated energy sanctions, extensively quoting the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz, who focuses on broad-based energy sanctions designed to punish the Iranian economy and not the international sanctions specifically aimed at thwarting nuclear progress.
David Albright, a physicist and former nuclear inspector now with ISIS, told ThinkProgress that “sanctions have multiple purposes and one of them is making it harder for Iran to proceed on a technical level and industrial level, and that’s working better.” He added that the international sanctions buy time: “It’s going to be a lot longer before they can get to the point where they can decide to build a nuclear weapon.”
Reza Marashi, the research director of the National Iranian American Council and a former State Department official, also told ThinkProgress: “What the UN sanctions allow the U.S. to do is take our national security strategy and get international agreement around it. When Turkey says we will adhere to the UN sanctions to the letter of the law, that is working.”
Economic sanctions and the UN panel’s point about “decision calculus” on enrichment hint at some of the wider problems of the hawks’ talking points. “Their definition of ‘working’ is that Iran no longer has a nuclear program and we change their regime,” said Marashi. Indeed, support for domestic nuclear enrichment for energy is a consensus position across the political spectrum in Iran, from the hard-liners in power to the widely misunderstood Green opposition movement.
More sanctions may yet be needed to change Iran’s calculus, but those who dismiss the current measures, declare Iran’s nuclear program is going at “full speed ahead” and peer “beyond Iran sanctions” are getting ahead of themselves. Sanctions may not have worked yet, but they certainly seem to be working.