Time’s Up for Iran Sanctions




Colin Rubenstein

The Australian – 22 December 2009

If anyone still had any doubts about Iran’s nuclear intentions, these should have been dispelled by last week’s revelations in The Times of documents showing Iran experimented with neutron trigger technology. Such technology can only be used in nuclear weaponry.

This was followed up by yet another provocative Iranian test of yet another missile seemingly designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

When US President Barack Obama took office back in January, he made clear that Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions were unacceptable to the US. But he made equally clear that he wanted to negotiate in good faith an end to all the misunderstandings between the two countries. Critics warned that such an engagement effort would allow Iran to continue spinning out the negotiating process while using the time gained to advance its nuclear efforts. To dispel these fears, Obama set a deadline for positive Iranian movement – the end of 2009.

The deadline offered by Obama and backed by the world has arrived. Many other deadlines given by the West and ignored by Iran have come and gone, but this one is different. It was declared by Obama, a president no one can accuse of refusing to sincerely engage Iran. The president even downplayed criticism of Iran’s violent suppression of the democratic opposition movement following the fraudulent June elections in Iran. It goes without saying that President Obama’s, and the international community’s, credibility will be irreparably damaged if he allows this deadline to pass without decisive action.

But this deadline also comes at a timely juncture because the Iranian opposition movement is growing in strength and boldness, while the regime has lost all domestic legitimacy. The regime’s violent attempts to suppress the opposition have only radicalised it, with calls for a change in the election result morphing into demands for a change in regime. Where protesters once chanted “Where is my vote?”, now “Death to the dictator”, “Iranian Republic, not Islamic Republic” and similar slogans are prominent.

The growing traction of the internal revolution is what the regime most fears. Significant sanctions now could further escalate domestic unrest – as would pressure on the regime over its gross human rights violations.

If the US and European Union want to avoid both the associated horrors of an Iranian nuclear bomb and the costs of a military attack to pre-empt it, either the UN Security Council must impose meaningful, enforceable and targeted sanctions against Iran or the US, with like-minded allies including the EU and Australia, will have to do it themselves.

Convincing UN veto holders China and Russia will be difficult, though not impossible. China has investments in Iran estimated at US$120 billion, and Iran is one of China’s biggest oil suppliers. However, there is little doubt Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, each fearful of growing Iranian power, will be willing to fill any petroleum gap at comparable prices.

On the Russian front, Iranian-American tension is seen as beneficial by Moscow, which seeks to bolster its own regional stature by supporting Washington’s chief rival in the Middle East. Nonetheless, it may be possible to convince Russia that a nuclear Iran also seriously threatens Russian interests.

However, very promisingly, President Obama is continuing the Bush strategy devised and still executed by the US Treasury Department’s Stuart Levey to implement effective targeted sanctions against Iran without either China or Russia.

The most effective sanctions would be aimed at the reviled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its growing control of the economy and particularly of the energy sector. The US is developing the wherewithal to effectively stop Iran’s import of some 40 percent of its refined petroleum products by regulating or boycotting oil firms that sell to Iran, as well as the shipping, insurance and financial companies facilitating this trade. The US can and should offer these companies a stark choice: either trade in Iran or in the US, but not both.

In a country whose citizens are accustomed to subsidised petrol, this strategy alone could have dramatic effects. Back in 2007, when Iran attempted to introduce petrol rationing, violent protests were the result.

The EU can also help. Forty percent of Iran’s exports go to the EU, but EU sales to Iran make up only one percent of worldwide EU exports. A blanket EU sanctions regime against Iran, similar to that which the US already has in place, would hurt Europe, but cripple Iran.

A newly assertive President Obama appears reconciled to dealing with the world as it is, acknowledging evil does exist and clearly losing patience with Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Latin America recently, warned Venezuela and Bolivia not to “flirt with Iran”. Meanwhile, it was reassuring to read Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith’s recent statement that the government is “greatly troubled” by Iran’s nuclear program, and belief that “further UN or autonomous sanctions” must be considered if progress is not made soon.

The time for upgraded sanctions against Iran has surely, unequivocally, arrived.


Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Previously, he taught Middle East Politics at Monash University for many years.