New UN sanctions will not deter Iran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures after his news conference in Istanbul Iran's president has been intransigent in the face of UN sanctions

The new round of sanctions on Iran is unlikely to have any more effect on Iranian policy than the first three.

Only hours before the Security Council approved the latest measures, Western diplomats were saying that this sanctions resolution would not be the last.

This suggests many more months of waiting to see what Iran does, more monitoring and reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and more negotiations over yet more sanctions.

It also implies that the option of an attack on Iranian nuclear plants is not an active one, though diplomats do accept that at some stage it will not be realistic to hope for any diplomatic solution.

The choice then will be between accepting whatever Iran has developed (which might be short of making an actual bomb) or taking military action.

Oil and gas

There is disappointment, though not surprise, in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin that, in this resolution, Russia and China blocked any move to act against Iran's oil and gas industries.

There was never any chance that they would agree. They both have oil and gas interests in Iran and do not see Iran as a strategic threat.

Which is why the US Congress is now expected to pass its own legislation banning companies that invest significantly in Iranian oil and gas from operating in the US.

The British government will also be pressing the EU to take measures restricting investment in the Iranian energy field.

It appears that Western governments hope that energy might be a future target. They are pointing out that, in the latest resolution, it is mentioned that Iranian revenues for its "proliferation-sensitive" activities come mainly from the energy sector. They hope that this can be built on.

All this amounts to an acceptance that, while the old and new sanctions might be slowing down Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile work, they have not stopped them nor have they led to any softening of the Iranian position.

Iran has rejected the Security Council demands as illegal and has said that it will press on with uranium enrichment, but will not build a nuclear weapons.

Failure

There are two reasons why sanctions have failed.

The first is that they are not targeted against Iran's vital economic interests, and Iran has developed systems of evasion in any case.

The second is that the Iranian government is more than willing to absorb the limited economic effect they have in favour of the greater political benefit it gets from continuing with its nuclear activities.

Indeed, sanctions are another flag around which to rally its supporters.

The new resolution aims to add to the previous attempts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear or ballistic missile technology. It aims to

  • Ban the supply to Iran of heavy weapons, including tanks, warships, helicopter gunships and missiles
  • Tighten up the ban on dealings with Iranian banks and individuals, including businesses and members of the Revolutionary Guard
  • Enable states to search any suspect ship or plane.
Will Iran budge?

The problem is that the really hard-hitting sanctions have been avoided. The most damaging measures would be to stop the sale to Iran of finished petroleum products and to ban investment in its oil and gas industries. Despite its wealth of oil deposits, Iran cannot refine enough products for its own use.

Iran has also managed to work round the systems already in place.

In April, a Washington-based monitoring group, Iran Watch, reported that the Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) had undertaken "a large-scale re-labeling of its ships, giving them new names, new managers, new 'owners' - in short, new identities".

"The US blacklist has not kept up with these changes, so it is being circumvented by Iran with relatively little effort," Iran Watch said.

The New York Times followed this up with a detailed account of how it has been done.

The result of all this is that Security Council sanctions have tended to be the lowest common denominator in which the important thing is to preserve the unity of the council.

Yet the more unity there is, the fewer the sanctions.

This is why the US Congress has prepared measures of its own, in addition to the blanket trade ban the US imposed in 1995.

It may well be that pressure by the US and the EU, under which individual companies simply stop trading with Iran, might have more economic effect than the UN.

But, again, will Iran budge?

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