Smarter than Smart Bombs

‘In his desire to see the bombers go into Iran, John Bolton does not consider the sort of smart sanctions experts actually envisage’

The temporary disappearance of the cargo ship Arctic Sea in the English Channel last July led to speculation that Mossad may have been involved. One version of the saga is that the Israelis faked the ship’s hijacking in order to draw attention to attempts by rogue Russian military personnel to sell the Iranians the latest S-300 anti-aircraft weapons. Such a system could increase Israeli Air Force casualties by 50 per cent, should it bomb Iran’s nuclear installations. In a separate development, a Belgian arms dealer, Jacques Monsieur — known as “The Field Marshal” — has been arrested in New York for allegedly attempting to buy engines for Iranian F-5 fighters. Meanwhile, Iran has signalled its intransigence by appointing the former head of its al-Quds terror force, said to be responsible for bombing a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in 1994, as its new Defence Minister. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may say the nuclear debate is over. But it is not. 

Sanctions have a poor reputation, whether one thinks of Italy and Abyssinia in the 1930s, Rhodesia and South Africa, or Cuba. With characteristic robustness, the former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has been fulminating in the Wall Street Journal against the “strong sanctions” President Barack Obama plans to orchestrate if Iran does not freeze its nuclear programme. He argues that these sanctions simply will not work because China and Russia will not play ball, German and Italian business interests in Iran will ensure that EU co-operation is limp, while the new Japanese Democratic Party government will be unreliable. By contrast, advocates of sanctions claim that Iran’s greatest vulnerability is that it imports 40 per cent of its daily refined petroleum consumption. Bolton counters that Iran could lower consumption by cutting petrol subsidies, while simultaneously increasing its own refining capability and switching to cars and trucks run on compressed natural gas, which it has in abundance. One doubts, however, that this will happen overnight.

In his desire to see the bombers go into Iran, Bolton does not consider the sort of smart sanctions most experts on this subject actually envisage. None of the experts is known as a yellow-bellied appeaser. Stuart Levey, the US Treasury Under-Secretary for financial intelligence and terrorism under both George W. Bush and Obama, says that modern sanctions are more like law enforcement measures, authorised under the US Patriot Act, than vague expressions of hope that “x” will not trade with “y”. 

Sanctions now involve blacklisting financial institutions. The US did this in 2005 with the Banco Delta Asia in Macao and it has done it too with the Iranian-owned Saderat and Sepha Banks, which have financed Hizbollah and Hamas respectively, or fund Iranian purchases of ballistic missile technology. ABN Amro was fined $80 million for allowing its Dubai subsidiary to make illegal money transfers to Tehran. A wider sanctions programme should target another Iranian bank, the Bank Melli, as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, both of which have been engaged in Tehran’s procurement programmes. Surely the oil companies which ship petroleum to Iran and their insurers can be subjected to measures already used against banks? 

Opponents of sanctions are sanguine that military strikes will work against Iran’s nuclear programme. I am doubtful about this. Israel’s Air Force was able to wreck the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 with eight F-16s, ironically a year after the Iranians themselves launched an attack on the same site with two Phantoms. 

But Iran is four times the size of Iraq and more mountainous, and its government has had years to disperse and harden its nuclear installations. Since even the US will not have stocks of 30,000lb Multiple Ordnance Penetrator bombs until 2010, it is highly unlikely that Israel does either, assuming it is not planning to use tactical nuclear weapons, which would be semi-suicidal. Iran is also capable of responding via its terrorist surrogates, and, whatever the war-gamers claim, can probably paralyse shipping in the Straits of Hormuz. It can also up the ante for coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq at its own choosing. 

None of the proponents of enhanced sanctions against Iran argues that the US should remove the military option from the table in what should be a concerted push to compel the Iranians to see reason. But it is similarly incumbent on those who blithely advocate force to understand its tactical limitations, let alone the chaos that is likely to ensue from such measures. Or perhaps they have already forgotten history’s lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan?

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