The Obama Administration is having trouble putting together a package of sanctions on Iran. After a year during which Iran has both thumbed its nose at the White House and accelerated its nuclear programs, the administration is looking to send a strong message. At the same time, it has opposed efforts by members of Congress to pass the Iran Sanctions Act, a very tough bill that would strike at the heart of the regime in Teheran by cutting off access to the U.S. market to companies that sell Iran gasoline or equipment to refine petroleum.
Even as the U.S. government finds it difficult to take action against Iran, municipalities across the country are making the decision to wage unrestricted economic warfare on Arizona because of that state’s new immigration law. The city councils in Los Angeles and San Francisco have passed ordinances calling for total boycotts of Arizona. The mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota has ordered city departments not to hold meetings in that state. The Service Employees Union International and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union International, representing millions of their members, have joined in the boycott movement. State and local lawmakers from Massachusetts to Oregon also are proposing boycotts. A school board in Illinois has decided not to send a high school girl’s basketball team to a tournament in Arizona. The Internet is filled with blogs calling on Americans to personally boycott Arizona as well as to support efforts in that direction by their local lawmakers.
There is something wrong with this picture. The U.S. government has taken months and months to put together what is obviously an ineffective set of economic sanctions on the rogue regime in Teheran while mayors and city councils turn on a dime and drop an economic nuclear bomb on Arizona. The administration is concerned that sanctions not harm ordinary Iranians. Los Angeles and San Francisco seem to have no concerns about the ordinary citizens of Arizona. Sanction supporters understand the basic reality of sanctions: they have to really hurt in order to have any chance of success. The lesson from sanction campaigns against Rhodesia, Libya, North Korea and Iraq is that in order to have the desired effect sanctions have to go to for the target’s jugular.
Sanction campaigns are rarely successful. They fail most often because those imposing them do not understand that they are engaged in a form of warfare. To be effective, sanctions must hurt the target country’s economy which inevitably means also injuring ordinary citizens. They also fail because the target country is insulated against them. In some cases, regimes under sanctions have even used the opportunity to make money through smuggling. So it is important to have a well thought out sanctions strategy. It is also important to be ruthless.
On the issue of Iran sanctions the administration is wrong and Congress is right. The way to have an impact on that country is to leverage America’s position in the global economy while simultaneously going against the most significant vulnerabilities of the Iranian economy. This means threatening international companies with the loss of access to the U.S. economy if they provide assistance to Iran’s oil and gas industry. It also means trying to cut off the supply of refined petroleum to that country. The Iranian oil and gas industry cannot survive without access to foreign technology and know-how to keep its oil and gas industry going. The Iranian economy will grind to a halt without gasoline. While a drastic step, such sanctions are well justified by the danger should Iran acquire a nuclear weapon.
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