Obama Touts Toughest Iran Sanctions in History, But Report Questions Their Effectiveness

October 23, 2012 - 4:35 AM

Presidential Debate

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama walks past each other on stage at the end of their last debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s assertion that Iran faces the toughest sanctions ever imposed is accurate – even though the impetus for them came largely from Congress – but a recent non-partisan report questioned their effectiveness in achieving their primary goal.

During Monday night’s foreign policy debate in Florida, Obama said his administration had “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy.”

“Their currency has dropped 80 percent,” he continued. “Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney voiced support for “crippling sanctions,” saying they were “something I called for five years ago.” But he said they should be tightened and expanded to include diplomatic steps, such as indicting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for inciting genocide.

“I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world – the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa,” he added.

“We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran,” Republican charged. “And we should not have wasted these four years to the extent they – they continue to be able to spin these [uranium-enrichment] centrifuges and get that much closer.”

Sanctions are undeniably having a dramatic effect on the Iranian economy, but that is not their declared aim. They are designed to force a change of behavior from the regime concerning its nuclear activities, which the West believes are aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability.

In that, said a Congressional Research Service report released last week, they have yet to prove effective.

“There is a consensus that U.S. and U.N. sanctions have not, to date, accomplished their core strategic objective of compelling Iran to verifiably limit its nuclear development to purely peaceful purposes,” the report concluded.

It said economic measures imposed against Tehran have made it more difficult and expensive for Iran to acquire materials needed for its uranium-enrichment program, leading the Obama administration’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, to argue that “they have slowed Iran’s nuclear efforts.”

“Others, however, say that there is not clear evidence that sanctions are slowing Iran’s program,” the report added, pointing out that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and 20 percent-enriched uranium, as well as its capacity to enrich uranium, have continued to grow despite the sanctions.

(In its latest safeguards report on Iran, in early September, the IAEA said the number of centrifuges at a uranium-enrichment plant at Iran’s underground facility near Qom has doubled in number; and that its LEU holdings now total 6,876 kilograms – an increase of 679 kilograms since last May. In its analysis of the IAEA report, the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said that 6,876 kilograms of LEU, “if further enriched to weapon grade, is enough to make five nuclear weapons.”)

Secondary objectives for sanctions include reducing the regime’s regional influence, discouraging it from arming militant groups and the Assad regime, and pressuring it into improving its human rights record. But there, too, the CRS report offered no positive news.

“Sanctions against Iran have not, to date, clearly reduced Iran’s influence in the Middle East or its strategic capabilities in the Persian Gulf region. Iran continues to financially and militarily support militant movements in the Middle East, including the exportation of arms to some of these movements, and to Syria, in contravention of U.N. Resolution 1747,” it said, referring to a measure adopted unanimously by the Security Council in 2007.

“U.S. and international sanctions have not, to date, had a measurable effect on human rights practices in Iran,” the report went on to say. “Executions have increased in recent years ...”

Weakening the regime?

Even with regards to the undeclared sanctions goal of stoking public sentiment against the Iranian regime, the steps taken by the U.S. and international community have not resulted in obvious successes.

Sanctions have brought political pressure to bear on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has been summoned to parliament to answer questions about the collapse of the Iranian currency, and Iranians who have taken to the streets to protest economic difficulties have largely blamed the president.

Yet Ahmadinejad’s faction is in fact regarded as potentially more accommodating on the nuclear issue than a rival camp associated with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

According to the CRS, Ahmadinejad “is said to favor a deal” over the nuclear standoff, while the supreme leader in contrast “tends to consider any deal with the West as a U.S.-led plot to undermine Iran’s regime.”

If anything, sanctions may therefore be weakening the wrong faction in the regime’s leadership. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s second and final term ends in mid-2013, so while he remains highly controversial in the West he is an increasingly insignificant factor.

Lawmakers loyal to the supreme leader, on the other hand, dominated parliamentary elections last March. And politicians keen to contest next year’s presidential election will need the approval of the Guardian Council, a legal-religious body appointed by Khamenei. Judging from past elections those it rules eligible to run will likely be only those candidates the supreme leader deems suitable.

A ‘united world’ against Iran?

In Monday’s debate, Obama reprised a theme raised by Vice President Joe Biden during his recent debate with Rep. Paul Ryan – that when the administration took office, the world was divided over Iran, but now thanks to U.S. diplomatic efforts it is united in its opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Describing the work required in setting up the sanctions as “painstaking,” Obama said, “We started from the day we got into office. And the reason is was so important – and this is a testament to how we’ve restored American credibility and strength around the world – is we had to make sure that all the countries participated, even countries like Russia and China,” Obama said. “It’s because we got everybody to agree that Iran is seeing so much pressure.”

Elsewhere in the debate he said that Iran faced “a united world.”

While the Obama administration did get Russia and China onboard for an Iran sanctions resolution in the Security Council in June 2010, doing so came at a cost. To accommodate Russia and China the text was watered down, and it crucially did not target Tehran’s energy sector.

Furthermore, “everybody” did not back the measure. Of the 15 members of the council Turkey and Brazil opposed the resolution, while Lebanon abstained.

In contrast the Bush administration twice achieved unanimous Security Council resolutions, December 2006 and March 2007, imposing sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities. A third sanctions resolution passed in March 2008 with one abstention, and a fourth resolution under the Bush administration, which did not impose new sanctions but reaffirmed the previous measures, also passed unanimously, in September 2008.

The notion that an isolated Iran faces a world united against its nuclear ambitions looked shaky last August when a grouping comprising some 60 percent of the world’s sovereign nations, meeting in Tehran, expressed support for Iran’s activities “in the field of peaceful use of nuclear technology” and rejected unilateral sanctions against Iran.