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The result? Pitifully minor annoyances to the Iranian economy and little evidence that it has slowed the mullahs’ drive to build a nuclear weapon. During the time that the sanctions have been in place, the Iranians have installed 5,000 working centrifuges at their main enrichment facility in Nantanz that is busy enriching hundreds of pounds of uranium, completed construction of the reactor at Bushehr and made it operational, constructed at least one and probably more smaller enrichment facilities such as the one built into a mountain outside of Qom, and, according to the nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, are rapidly developing the technical capability to marry a nuclear bomb to their missiles.
To be fair, there is some evidence that the last round of sanctions against Iran’s central bank have generated the kind of pain they were designed to cause. The only problem; it is ordinary Iranians who are feeling the pinch as inflation has soared 50% for some basic food items like meat and milk. The economy is a wreck — more a result of mismanagement by the government than the sanctions — and there is some indication that the oil sector of the economy is beset by supply problems as spare parts and new equipment are hard to come by.
But Ivan Eland, a senior fellow with the Independent Institute, writes in the Washington Times that sanctions rarely work:
The problem with all sanctions is that they erode over time as the target nation redirects its products to countries that aren’t participating in the sanctions or finds ways to trade illegally with entities in the sanctioning countries. With such market “reordering” and outright evasion, the target country is rarely starved of export revenues.
Specifically with regard to Iran, Eland notes that “despite the existing sanctions on Iran’s petroleum sector, the country exported some $71.6 billion worth of petroleum products in 2010, according to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).” And the Iranians have said that 2011 was even better.
Noted above, the sanctions have had little effect on the ability of the Iranians to progress toward building a nuclear weapon, although there is some evidence that efforts to prevent the Iranians from upgrading their centrifuges, as well as continue their rapid development of ballistic missiles have achieved limited success. A recent UN report on the effectiveness of the international sanctions notes “sanctions are slowing Iran’s nuclear programme but not yet having an impact on the decision calculus of its leadership with respect to halting enrichment and heavy water-related activities.”
But it is far too little and it is becoming far too late. The chimera that the “decision calculus” of the regime factors in the suffering of ordinary people, or even the modernization of its aging oil sector is more of the same: the international community fooling itself into thinking that the Iranians can be deterred from possessing a nuclear weapon through the kind of sanctions that have been imposed thus far.
A total embargo of oil sales from Iran coupled with an attempt to interrupt its importation of gasoline would be more to the point as far as imposing sanctions with bite. But the world economy can ill afford to lose Iran’s 4 million bbl of oil a day without a serious shock to prices — a shock that the fragile economic recoveries in the West would be ill-prepared to manage. And while Iran used to import about a third of its refined gasoline, that has changed over the last 3 years, as rationing and a slowing economy have closed the gap between what Iran can refine in country and what it must get from outside sources.
In short, there is no magic combination of sanctions that can induce the Iranians to halt their enrichment activities. There never has been. As long as the current leadership is in power, Iran will continue its steady progress toward the inevitable. Even if the Iranians agree to sit down with the EU and US to negotiate, there is little the West can offer the Iranians that would change their minds. More likely, they would use the talks to buy time to create the capability of constructing a weapon in a matter of months — or weeks.
European Union leaders cannot really believe the additional sanctions they have imposed will act as a deterrence, or force the Iranians to the negotiating table, or do anything except make the creaky Iranian economy seize up with ordinary Iranians taking the brunt of the sanctions’ effects. It is more of the same from the international community — playing a myopic game of make-believe that by imposing sanctions on Iran, they are making a whit of difference in Tehran’s hegemonistic plans to dominate the region and wipe the state of Israel off the face of the Earth.
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