This week's indictment of three Glendale men for allegedly smuggling vacuum pumps and other industrial equipment to Iran via the United Arab Emirates is the latest reminder of how easily and frequently U.S. trade sanctions against Tehran have been violated. The charges were reported as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany prepared to meet in New York today to discuss tougher economic measures for pressing Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program.
Often called "the liberal alternative" to war, economic sanctions have long been favored by world powers over military action to achieve their foreign policy goals, and the Obama administration sees sanctions as the logical response to Iran's failure to accept an offer to ship its uranium stockpile to France and Russia for conversion into nuclear fuel there. It also sees sanctions as more likely to succeed than a bombing assault on Iran's web of dispersed and hidden nuclear facilities -- another frequently mentioned option.
While urging the administration to continue to pursue diplomatic engagement, we believe that targeted sanctions can be a useful form of pressure on Iran's Revolutionary Guard and radical leadership. But it is undeniable that sanctions have a mixed to poor record of success around the globe. It took more than a decade of sanctions to help bring about the downfall of the apartheid government in South Africa, or to prompt Libya to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The pressure of economic sanctions on Iraq prevented Saddam Hussein from fully rebuilding his military after the Persian Gulf War, but caused significant suffering for the civilian population and did not bring about a collapse of his government, as many hoped. Sanctions have weakened North Korea but apparently have not inhibited its nuclear ambitions.
When it comes to Iran, tougher sanctions are tricky. Some of the existing banking and other financial restrictions have squeezed the government, though Tehran has been clever at finding business partners from the U.S., China and elsewhere willing to violate trade restrictions. The administration is wise to avoid sweeping sanctions that would punish ordinary Iranians, such as the embargo on gas sales Congress wants. But even narrower sanctions meant to target the leadership and Revolutionary Guard can affect the general population, given that the government controls much of the Iranian economy. Unilateral measures imposed by the U.S. are ineffective, but gaining consensus among Security Council members will be a continuing challenge.
The administration may have no choice but to try. Even so, no one should expect sanctions to provoke a quick nuclear policy shift in Tehran.