Saturday, July 31, 2010

Are the Iran Sanctions Working?

. Saturday, July 31, 2010

Joe Klein believes the Iran sanctions are working:

But Krauthammer is right that there's something going on, something very important, with Iran--something that he and his fellow neoconservatives didn't anticipate. (Indeed, no one did.) The sanctions are working; they're having a major impact on the Iranian economy. The powerful bazaari community has been shocked not just by the universal support for the sanctions, but also by their comprehensive nature. Iranian ships are sitting at their docks because they international community is refusing to insure them. Banks that have done business with Iran in the past are refusing to do so now because the UN sanctions--that's right, those "weak" UN sanctions--target them as well. The Iranian economy, a stagflation fiasco before the sanctions, is cracking.

As a result, the Administration has been receiving all sorts of feelers--public and, for the first time, private--from the Iranians about resuming the negotiations on the nuclear program. Recently, the Iranians have promised not to enrich their uranium to the higher 20% level they threatened earlier--and proceed with the uranium exchange plan they negotiated with Turkey and Brazil. That's not sufficient. Any negotiations must take place within the IAEA matrix, with the UN Security Council's 5 permanent members, including the U.S., plus Germany. I'd hope that the Obama Administration would insist on a concession--a meaningful sign of good faith from the Iranians--like increased access for IAEA inspectors and the release of documents relating to their nuclear program that the IAEA has asked for, and not received, in the past--before any new round of negotiations begins. Too often in the past, the Iranians have used negotiations as a stall; they have to understand that's no longer possible. (If necessary, to preserve Iranian national pride after a century of being ordered around and messed with by the colonial powers, this can be done quietly.)

I'm not too sure what to think of this; there have been various reports over the past few weeks that an American or Israeli military confrontation with Iran has recently become more likely, not less. (Including one from, erm, Joe Klein.) In any case, "feelers" are no clear sign of progress, nor are concessions like those Klein mentions.

I think Klein is right about one thing: the new round of sanctions are hurting Iranian businesses and consumers. The political situation in Iran is already tenuous; the combination of an aging and ailing Khameini, crippled Ahmadinejad, and a somewhat robust reformist movement is certainly volatile. The sanctions could bring these tensions to a head. If, and this is a very big "if", the Iranian public blames their leadership for their economic suffering and not the international community, then this could pave the way for a shift in Iranian leadership, under which Iran might be willing to make a credible pledge to only pursue nuclear energy, and not weapons. That's the only scenario under which I see the sanctions "working", if by "work" you mean "ending Iran's weapons program beyond a reasonable doubt". Khameini and Ahmadi have too much at stake to make the sort of concessions that the Obama administration and its allies want to see.

At this point I have no idea if that scenario is plausible. Neither does Klein. I believe that over the medium-run it is plausible, but estimates put the clock at roughly a year before Iran crosses the Rubicon, or at least that Israel thinks that's where the clock is. In any case, it's really difficult to see whether there's been any budge from Iran, or whether there will be. It will depend on how, and how quickly, the domestic politics shakes out.


Emmanuel said...

Having actually been there recently and having interacted at length with many Middle East scholars from there and abroad, I very much doubt whether far-reaching changes are in store in short order.

Kindred Winecoff said...

I have no first-hand interactions, but I completely agree with your take.

BTW, I enjoyed your FA piece and plan to write something on it soon. Well done.

Are the Iran Sanctions Working?
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