Can sanctions against Iran work?

The Obama administration is talking with allies and US Congress about the possibility of imposing an extreme economic sanction against Iran if it fails to respond to President Barack Obama’s offer to negotiate on its nuclear programme: cutting off the country’s imports of gasoline and other refined oil products.

In a visit to Israel last fortnight, Obama’s national security adviser, James L Jones, noted that as many as 70 senators had signed on to legislation that would give Obama the option of taking action against companies around the world that supply Iran with 40 per cent of its gasoline, according to Israeli officials.

The White House has refused to confirm or deny the contents of Jones’ discussions with the Israelis. But other administration officials said that they believed his goal was to reinforce Obama’s argument that the Israeli government should stop dropping hints about conducting a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities if no progress is made this year, and to give the administration time to impose what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “crippling sanctions” that might force Iran to negotiate.

The Bush administration considered, and rejected, trying to engineer a cutoff of gasoline to Iran, which produces oil but does not have enough refining capacity to meet its own needs for gasoline.

Money matters
But enforcing what would amount to a gasoline embargo has long been considered risky and extremely difficult; it would require the participation of Russia and China, among others who profit from trade with Iran. Iran has threatened to respond by cutting off oil exports and closing shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, at a moment the world economy is highly vulnerable.

White House is not ready to discuss the issue at all. Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser, said the administration would not comment on any of its private discussions with allies. But European diplomats confirm that in recent weeks they have held private talks with administration officials about whether to move toward such a sanction if Iran ignores Obama’s deadline to begin talks by the opening of the next UN session in mid-September.

Assessing how effective such a cutoff might be has been complicated by the political turmoil inside Iran. Some analysts have argued that the action could further destabilise a weakened regime; others say it could be exploited by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to change the subject from the still-contested presidential election to Iran’s confrontation with the West.

There’s a legislation in the House, and Representative Jane Harman, who is active in intelligence and national security issues, said that “most people think that this is how you really hurt Iran”. She predicted the bill would ‘breeze through’ both houses of Congress.

But easy passage would not make the sanctions any easier to implement. As the Bush administration discovered as it pushed through three mild sanctions resolutions at the United Nations, Iran has enormous leverage over companies and countries dependent on its oil production.

Friction foreseen
The legislation would impose sanctions on any company that sold or delivered gasoline to Iran, cutting them off from selling to the US government and seeking to interfere with their financing. But many experts fear that true enforcement would require patrols off the Iranian coast, and that could lead to confrontations with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which patrols the same waters.

The Obama White House has been extraordinarily tight-lipped about its Iran strategy, and has not publicly discussed the legislation. But already it has become part of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering with Israel. Israeli officials have argued in recent weeks that the American unwillingness to confront North Korea more forcefully as it develops a nuclear program was evidence that the United States might be willing to tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

Obama’s aides, in return, worry that Israel is trying to force action too soon, by shortening the timetable until Iran may be able to manufacture a weapon. In fact, no one knows how quickly it might be able to do so, but it has already solved many of the key technological problems.

“The question we have to face,” one American diplomat said, “is whether any sanction at this point can really deter them, given how close they are now.”

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