Iran’s still-unproven nuclear weapons program is apparently one of the few issues the entire U.S. Senate can agree on. “The time has come to impose crippling sanctions on Iran’s financial system,” wrote Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a letter this week that was cosigned by 90 additional senators.
The letter urges President Obama to call for sanctions on Iran’s central bank which, if adopted by the international community, would effectively cut Iran off from the global economy and jeopardize its ability to collect oil revenues. Accordingly, some officials have referred to such sanctions as the “nuclear option,” tantamount to an “act of war” in the eyes of the Iranians. Senator Kirk has apparently promised to introduce legislation that would force the administration’s hand if it neglects to take action within the year—a threat that carries a certain amount of weight given the initiative’s overwhelming support in the Senate.
Presumably the senators understand the potential consequences of such new sanctions. A blanket blacklisting of Iran’s central bank “would punish ordinary Iranians,” according to Inter Press Service, “and could undermine what had been a growing international consensus against the Iranian nuclear programme. It could also jack up oil prices at a time when the global economy is teetering on the verge of a second recession.” This is to say nothing, of course, of the impact on escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The letter is the latest development in efforts by hawks to push the Obama administration to take a more confrontational approach to Iran. While the consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies is that Iran has still not decided to build a nuclear weapon—and a recent U.N. report has tentatively concluded that international sanctions are “slowing the development” of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs—hardliners like Jennifer Rubin and Fred Fleitz have insisted that sanctions are “failing” and that “Iran is on the brink of testing a nuclear weapon.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) released a statement praising the new sanctions proposal, calling Iran’s central bank fundamental to the country’s “strategy to circumvent international sanctions against its illicit nuclear program.” Rubin, on the other hand, linked the initiative to the supposed failure of the Obama administration to “[monitor] the results of our sanctions or [press] forward with new initiatives.”
Taken together, these statements seem to blur the distinction between international sanctions designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program and unilateral U.S. sanctions aimed at undermining the Iranian economy. This may well mean that neither the effectiveness nor the necessity of new sanctions is the fundamental thing to consider, but rather their political utility.
Sanctions, according to Paul Pillar at the National Interest, can have various objectives that may or may not overlap, so it is important to be clear whether particular sanctions are supposed to constrain, influence, or undermine a given regime. By conflating international and U.S. sanctions, writers like Rubin give themselves more room to declare later on that such sanctions have “failed”—and thus to advocate for more confrontational measures (like, say, regime change) down the line. “Those driven by this objective,” writes Pillar, “do not have any incentive to be clear about their ostensible objectives. In fact, they have an interest in being vague about them, leaving them more flexibility about how they can argue in the future that the sanctions have not ‘worked.’”
Indeed, Rubin offers a corollary to this logic herself, accusing the Obama administration of lacking the “leadership to push ahead and [failing] to provide an alternative to military action.” In other words, Rubin presents these sanctions as preventative of military action, even though their inevitable “failure” will be presented later as a rationale for war with Iran—which Rubin and AIPAC will inevitably support. Failing this, if the new sanctions are never implemented, they can simply blame the president for torpedoing a course of action that might have prevented war.
This playbook comes straight out of the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. By playing nice with “peaceful” measures like sanctions and perpetually shifting the goalposts, neoconservatives on the militarist fringe are once again leading us down the “yellowcake” road to war. But with at least 92 U.S. senators on board, they’re hardly as marginal as they should appear.