Riding the sanctions train to nowhere

The UN Security Council is probably going to vote tomorrow on Iran sanctions, according to Laura Rozen – and so it begins again. Renewed sanctions are a continuation of a failed policy, implemented to make it look as though the US and its allies are doing something, anything!, to counter the Iranian ‘menace’ while ignoring more difficult yet ultimately more lasting solutions. It’s a policy of sticking your head in the sand.

Sanctions haven’t worked. They’re not strict enough to really hurt Iran – the limits on arms deals with Iran, for instance, are ‘voluntary’, which I like – and they’re not going to get any stricter this time around, particularly given China’s interests in the country. China has been the main obstacle to the Obama administration’s campaign for sanctions, reportedly getting concessions from the US and making such modifications as refusing to let the sanctions name individual banks as part of their commercial restrictions on Iran. All this makes sense given the web of political and economic links that tie China and Iran together – the oil trade and Chinese investment in Iranian business being the two key points here. A new sanctions resolution will put strain on that relationship and on China’s relationship with emerging powers like Brazil, for whom renewed sanctions amount to a kick in the teeth following the recently concluded fuel swap agreement with Iran, roundly rejected by the US. A great analysis of China’s calculations on the Iran issue can be found here.

Iran has found a way to live with sanctions, changing up its ships so that they are given new ‘identities’ and thus continuing with trade despite restrictions; it is well known that a lot of this passes across the Persian Gulf and through Gulf states like Dubai. Shunned by the west, it has forged links elsewhere. But the US presses on regardless, with even the Obama administration seeming to acknowledge the lack of value of sanctions: adminstration officials say that sanctions are about ‘unity’, about demonstrating a common front against Iran, suggesting that their actual value in changing Iranian behaviour is minimal.

The idea of ‘unity’, of a common front united against a country, is attractive for those who wish to demonise Iran, to make it a warmongering rogue state who will only listen to threats. Tehran has, however, shown little inclination to listen to those threats. Uniting against a country creates an ‘us and them’ which further isolates it but also legitimates its government; sanctions in Iran have become a convenient ‘rallying point’ for Ahmedinejad’s government. The political gain to be had from continuing its nuclear program despite the world’s opprobrium is greater than the slight economic loss that sanctions entail.

Recently, Turkey and Brazil broke from this sterile ‘unity’, striking a deal that was remarkably similar to one proposed by the US a little earlier – but when they announced their achievement they were met with the international-relations equivalent of a blank stare. This turnaround by the Obama administration shows its lack of commitment to finding a meaningful cure for the Iranian nuclear blues; instead, they carry on with sanctions, sending a tough message that will have absolutely zero effect, and in the meantime scuppering Brazil and Turkey’s deal. ‘Punishing’ Iran in this way may feel tough, but it looks foolish.

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