Iran nuclear sanctions not enough

The Obama administration says the new economic sanctions against Iran adopted by the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday are the toughest ever against that country’s military and financial interests, and demonstrate a consensus among the major powers that Tehran must not develop a nuclear weapon. Though this may be accurate, it is also true that the sanctions are far from crippling and are unlikely to be much more effective than the previous three rounds in persuading Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

The U.N. resolution, approved by a vote of 12 to 2 with Turkey and Brazil voting no and Lebanon abstaining, targets Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard and bans the country from investing in uranium mining, pursuing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons or purchasing from eight other broad categories of heavy weapons. It imposes sanctions such as an asset freeze on 40 Iranian companies, organizations and shipping lines, more than doubling the number already on the list. It also calls on all countries to cooperate in cargo inspections when presented with “reasonable grounds” to suspect material for the Iranian nuclear program.

But the resolution does not include an embargo on Iranian oil sales, which account for an estimated three-fourths of the country’s revenues. Nor does it impede normal trade that might affect typical Iranians (or the economic interests of allies Russia and China). It calls on, rather than requires, countries to block financial transactions that could contribute to Iranian nuclear activities, and the resulting implementation is likely to be uneven at best.

The Obama administration and its allies had rejected a fuel swap deal with Iran brokered by Turkey and Brazil as too little, too late, but after the Security Council vote, held on the one-year anniversary of Iran’s contested presidential election, the five permanent members said they were “keeping the door open for early engagement” with Iran. We recognize that a year of attempted diplomacy on the part of the administration has not produced any more results than sanctions, and realistically, the new sanctions are likely to impede diplomacy for many months while Tehran demonstrates that it will not be cowed.

Nonetheless, we urge the administration and its allies to continue to pursue engagement with the Islamic Republic. The other options are grim. A military strike would be untenable, and a nuclear Iran dangerously destabilizing. Ultimately, a negotiated agreement offers the only possibility of persuading Iran to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency in allowing open inspections under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to comply with international safeguard protocols and to prove that it is limiting its nuclear program to peaceful purposes, as it claims. That is the goal that has eluded each U.S. administration so far.