While the United States and Europe have been ratcheting up sanctions against
Iran, they still pale in comparison to the draconian measures imposed on Iraq in
1991. It’s worth remembering how the world reacted to the regime of Saddam
Hussein, that however horrible, did not pose nearly the danger and evil to the
Middle East region and the world that characterizes the words and actions of
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and its President, Mahmoud
Four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990,
the United Nations Security Council passed United Nations Security Council
Resolution 661, which imposed a near-total financial and trade embargo on Iraq,
designed to force it to withdraw its forces, pay reparations and to disclose and
eliminate any weapons of mass destruction.
The resolution was
all-encompassing: it forbade the import of all Iraqi products and commodities;
any activities related to the export of Iraqi products; the sale of weapons or
other military equipment to Iraq; and prohibited making available funds or other
financial or economic resources to any commercial, industrial or public utility
operating within Iraq, except for medical or humanitarian purposes.
vote passed 13-0 with only Cuba and Yemen abstaining. On April 3, 1991,
following the end of the Gulf War, the Security Council passed the even harsher
Resolution 687, which in addition to sanctions called for the removal of weapons
of mass destruction, including the demand that Iraq unconditionally remove and
destroy all chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles with a range
greater than 150 km.
The UNSC also demanded that Iraq submit a report
within 15 days declaring the locations of these weapons and agree to urgent,
on-site inspections. It established a special commission related to the
inspections and set provisions for it, asking that Iraq abide by its obligations
under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agree not to develop nuclear
In Iraq’s case, the world was resolute: the resolution was
passed 12-1 with two abstentions. Previous sanctions, which led to
hyperinflation, widespread poverty and malnutrition, brought Iraq to its knees
and forced it to accept the provisions of Resolution 687 on April 6, 1991 – just
three days after they were passed.
How times have changed. Sanctions on
Iran in recent years have come in fits and starts at best. It’s only in recent
months that Europe and the United States have begun to impose sanctions that
might mean real hardship for the Iranian economy, but most of the rest of the
world has yet to join in.
To great fanfare, the European Union announced
a few days ago an oil embargo on Iran and a freeze on the assets of its central
bank (CBI); and in the US, Congress passed the Kirk-Menendez Amendment at the
end of December. Specially, the law would forbid any US financial institution to
deal with the CBI, or to deal with any financial institution that does so. In
other words, if you do business with Iran, you will lose access to the largest
financial market on earth.
The Obama administration also last week
imposed sanctions on Iran’s Bank Tejerat, its third-largest bank, closing off
one of the last of Tehran’s conduits for doing business in the West. The bank is
the 23rd Iranian- linked financial institution to be blacklisted by the US since
While initially heralded in Israel and the West, it turns out that
the Congressional amendment and EU sanctions don’t take effect until July 1, and
the sanctions on Bank Tejerat will go into effect only in a couple months’ time.
The Americans and Europeans are also still mired in their wishful thinking that
somehow negotiations might be resumed, most likely using Turkey as a back
channel, though with Ankara’s recent foreign policy failures across the Arab
world and the growing threat of a possible Turkish economic debacle on the
horizon, its ability to bridge gaps with Tehran is highly unlikely.
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have made clear that
these moves are insufficient and will not force Iran to abandon its nuclear
Continued delays also provide the Iranians with more
time to shift a greater portion of uranium enrichment activities to a fortified
site deep underground at Fordo, south of Tehran, designed to withstand air
However, the increase in sanctions over the past few months has
not been without some effect, and in fact has been particularly harmful to
Iran’s currency, the rial, which has been devalued by 70 percent against the US
dollar since September. As another indicator of the sanctions’ effects, Iranian
banks are offering 21% interest as Iranians continue to get rid of local
currency as quickly as possible.
But Asia and its four largest consumers
(China, India, Japan and South Korea), to where Iran exports approximately 70%
of its crude oil, are hardly on board with the sanctions regime. While Japan has
pledged to “start reducing... as soon as possible, in an orderly manner,” South
Korea is dragging its feet and India has defiantly announced that it will not
cut back on Iranian imports at all.
China, of course, has made it clear
that it wants nothing of Iranian sanctions and both they and the Indians will
likely purchase even more oil and benefit as well from somewhat lower prices, as
the Iranians look to supplement sales lost because of sanctions made by the
Iran has experienced some problems with oil payments, but seems to be
getting around those as well. For example, the Reserve Bank of India
halted a clearing mechanism last year due to sanctions, but then payments were
cleared through Turkish and UAE banks, and through Gazprombank of
Regime change is also not an option: during the 2009 “elections,”
there was no indication that any real opposition in Iran would be in favor of
anything except continuing to develop nuclear capabilities.
sanctions can work. They worked in South Africa; they worked in Iraq. But they
require a world that is resolute and united. While US and the EU have somewhat
upped the ante, much of the rest of the world is purposefully not joining in –
most notably, Iran’s intractable Asian customers and Russia, who continue to
oppose sanctions at every opportunity. The number of options left open to
Israel is therefore extremely limited: Iran holding a nuclear weapon is not one
of them.The writer is based in Israel and is the founder of the website
Middle East Clarity.