Whatever happened to the crippling sanctions against Iran that the Obama administration swore would come after engagement and the EU said it would support?
Despite repeated statements by European leaders and US officials that the time has come for a new round of sanctions, it is hard to believe that anything meaningful will emerge from the latest diplomatic flurry. When it comes to Iran, experience offers virtually no examples of sanctions that "bite" as President Obama called them or "crippling" as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labelled them. Nobody in Iran is going to be crippled or bitten soon — except perhaps regime opponents, but that's not because of sanctions.
In short, sanctions, even limited ones, are a long way off. There is no comfort in knowing that EU ministers are "talking about it" or that President Obama expects them "in weeks, not months".
One needs only to look at the past two years to understand why, rhetoric aside, nobody is displaying any sense of urgency. The last time sanctions were approved was in March 2008, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1803. Since then, there has been an endless stream of sensible reasons to postpone the adoption of new measures. First, there was hope of a new UN resolution — but all that the UN could do was to reaffirm previous decisions, by passing Resolution 1835 in September 2008.
Then there was a US presidential election. With America distracted and its foreign policy uncertain, Iran was not interested in dialogue and the EU — whose appetite for sanctions was never really strong — was not willing to add new ones for fear of going against future US foreign policy.
Once President Obama took office, there was a lengthy policy review, so Europe didn't jump the gun. There was no point, too, in Obama speaking of sanctions while he was trying to engage Iran.
By the time engagement began, there were looming Iranian elections with which nobody wished to interfere. European diplomats noted that sanctions would strengthen the radicals inside Iran, giving them a pretext to distract public opinion from Tehran's economic turmoil. It would be better to wait.
Everyone waited and the elections turned into a bloodbath. To be fair, the EU leaders' condemnation was better than President Obama's, at least rhetorically. When Britain — whose non-diplomatic personnel at its Tehran embassy were arrested on trumped-up charges — asked the other member states to withdraw their ambassadors, European governments displayed their proverbial divisiveness.
Then there was a nuclear deal that everyone thought was a win-win situation — and therefore nobody thought of slapping sanctions on the Iranian regime when such a bright new beginning seemed to be on the cards. No sanctions.
Autumn morphed into winter, Iran ran circles around its Western interlocutors and eventually turned the deal down. There was an end-of-the-year deadline for Iran's answer that came and went.
Now there is more talking for Plan C — unilateral sanctions — in case Plan B fails. But Plan C will be discussed only after Plan B fails, meaning more delays. And even if there is a UN resolution, it will be so amorphous, toothless and anodyne, to get China and Russia on board, that Plan C won't happen.
There is abundant evidence of Iranian mischief, a policy of stalling talks. Russian and Chinese interests remain unchanged — so they are unlikely to endorse sweeping sanctions.
It therefore comes down to the following: do the US and the EU wish to stop Iran's nuclear quest? If so, are they prepared to pay the political price to make, at least, an honest and worthy effort? Are they willing to face up to the reality that there is simply no international backing for the kind of policies needed to stop Iran now and to avoid conflict in the region later? If the answer to these questions is yes, there is no need to wait. Otherwise, there will be more stalling, more talking and more procrastinating.