Call for Iran sanctions backed by muscle
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - While the ongoing United States military surge in Afghanistan
continues to capture the headlines, Iran's nuclear program - and how best to
deal with it - is rapidly emerging here as the year's biggest foreign policy
Although the administration of President Barack Obama remains hopeful that a
combination of diplomacy and increasingly tougher sanctions will succeed in
persuading Tehran to curb its nuclear efforts, the debate over stronger
measures - from a sanctions-enforcing blockade to military strikes - is hotting
The debate appears to be driven chiefly by growing pressure on the
administration by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and its supporters here to sharply ramp up
pressure on Tehran through the urgent adoption of both "crippling sanctions"
and the means to enforce them militarily.
"Time is growing short. There must be forceful sanctions now," Netanyahu
declared at a Jerusalem conference on February 17.
"Forceful sanctions must include steps to stop the importation of petroleum
products to Iran and the export of energy," he added in what was widely
interpreted as a call for a blockade, as well as an implicit rejection of
narrower sanctions - targeted chiefly at the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps
(IRGC) - preferred by Obama at this point in the growing confrontation.
During a visit to Washington last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak
pressed his US counterpart Robert Gates to build up US naval forces in the Gulf
both to demonstrate Washington's resolve and prepare to use them "to prevent
critical imports and exports from" Iran as part of any enhanced unilateral or
multilateral sanctions regime, according to an Israeli member of Barak's
delegation quoted in this week's Defense News.
The same article, written by the newspaper's Israel-based correspondent,
Barbara Opall-Rome, also quoted an unnamed US official as saying that
Washington was considering ways to enforce any new sanctions that may soon be
put before the United Nations Security Council.
The same official stressed, however, that Washington was not willing to
consider "trip wire-type military challenges" to Iran "at least at this stage".
The debate comes as the administration and its European allies are pressing a
major diplomatic offensive to persuade veto-wielding Russia and China, as well
as several doubtful non-permanent members of the Security Council - notably
Brazil, Lebanon and Turkey - to back or at least abstain on a new sanctions
resolution that would restrict or ban commercial transactions with
IRGC-controlled companies in Iran's banking, shipping and insurance sectors.
At the same time, the administration is resisting pressure from the US Congress
to go along with pending legislation that, among other things, would impose
sanctions against foreign companies that export gasoline to Iran or have major
investments in Iran's energy sector.
The so-called "Israel Lobby" enjoys strong support on both sides of the aisle.
It sees the legislation as the first of a series of "crippling" sanctions -
preferably multilateral, but unilateral for now - that would eventually be
backed up with military force.
But the administration argues that unilateral sanctions at this point risk
alienating countries whose support is essential for persuading the UN Security
Council to take tougher action.
In addition, the burdens created by such sanctions would fall on the Iranian
population as a whole, rather than on specific hardline leaders and
institutions. That, in turn, could trigger a nationalistic reaction that would
rally the citizenry behind the regime and thus weaken the opposition Green
Movement, according to the administration and its backers.
But the Israelis, who believe that the opposition is too weak to seriously
threaten the regime in the short term, argue that the nuclear situation
requires harsher and more urgent action.
"It's clear to me that the clock toward the collapse of this regime works much
slower than the clock which ticks toward Iran becoming [a] nuclear military
power," Barak told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy, a think-tank closely tied to the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee, the leading Israel Lobby organization.
He also argued that Tehran's acquisition of a nuclear capability would
constitute for Israel - if not for the US - a "tipping point of the whole
Israel's call for stronger and more urgent action is strongly echoed by both
hardline neo-conservatives and some of their aggressive nationalist allies who
played a major role in persuading the administration of president George W Bush
to invade Iraq in 2003.
Former UN ambassador John Bolton has been arguing for months that neither
diplomacy nor sanctions would not succeed and that Obama should at least
acquiesce in Israel's carrying out a military strike against Iran's nuclear
facilities, if not order a more massive assault by US forces the sooner the
better. He was recently joined last year's Republican vice presidential
candidate Sarah Palin.
Bolton's conviction regarding the ineffectiveness of diplomacy or sanctions in
preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capacity is also increasingly accepted
by more establishment figures who are now debating whether the threat or use of
military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity can
Last month, the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations
Richard Haass argued in a widely noted Newsweek column that "regime change" was
the "only way to stop Iran" and followed it up in an interview with the
magazine's Fareed Zakaria that Washington should consider taking unilateral
military action to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The growing clamor for stronger action drew a sharp rebuttal this week from two
key analysts at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
In a Financial Times column entitled "Do Not Even Think About Bombing Iran",
Michael O'Hanlon and Bruce Riedel argued that Washington should be careful
about brandishing military threats lest it lead to a "self-fulfilling
"The strike option lacks credibility," wrote O'Hanlon, an Iraq War hawk, and
Riedel, who led the Obama administration's review of Afghanistan-Pakistan
policy one year ago. "America is engaged in two massive and unpopular military
campaigns in the region."
"Given Iran's ability to retaliate against the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, it
is simply not credible that we would use force in the foreseeable future," they
went on, adding that Washington should, among other steps, "structure a
sanctions regime so that it could evolve into containment of a nuclear-armed