Washington’s message: Strengthen sanctions on Tehran
By Brian Beary in Washington | Friday 05 October 2012
With EU foreign ministers considering imposing yet more sanctions on Iran to dissuade it from building nuclear weapons, US experts on Iran are urging the EU to hold firm on the sanctions route as it is working. “If anything, the sanctions need to be enhanced,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a former US ambassador to the EU, who now heads up an Iran task force at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC. During a seminar, on 4 October, Eizenstat called the sanctions “the most comprehensive ever imposed on a country during peacetime”. He was surprised at the EU’s forcefulness, saying that given his past experiences as US ambassador in Brussels, he never in his “wildest dreams” thought that the EU would impose a total oil embargo, and that this was “an extraordinary achievement”. Susan Maloney, Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said that the EU sanctions targeting the insurance sector were “the most effective of all” as they had also disrupted trade between Iran and countries that were still willing to buy oil from Tehran.
At a separate talk at Johns Hopkins University, on 2 October, the director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) noted that the insurance sector sanctions had, for instance, forced South Korea to stop buying Iranian oil. Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official, said that the EU’s hard line was motivated by a feeling of “disgust” among Europeans stemming from the Iranian regime’s denial of the holocaust and pledge to “wipe Israel off the map”.
Given the recent deterioration in Iran’s economy, with its currency having lost 80% of its value over the past year, the prevailing sentiment in Washington is that the sanctions should continue to be tightened. There is an acknowledgement that the EU sanctions in particular are making the decisive difference because Europe, unlike the US, used to do significant trade with Iran before the toughest sanctions to date, the oil embargo, took effect on 1 July 2012. The IISS’ Fitzpatrick noted how even though Iran has about US$80 billion in foreign reserves, it is increasingly hard for the Iranian authorities to access those reserves because the sanctions now cover the banking sector too. Brookings’ Maloney said that while sanctions were working, one problem with them is that “we have no exit strategy”. She said there was little support in the US for giving Iran a reward, in terms of easing off the sanctions, should it meet demands that it stop enriching uranium.
SUPPORT FOR E3+3 TALKS
The E3+3 talks with Iran, which High Representative Catherine Ashton is leading, were viewed by the experts as being largely unproductive and yet necessary. Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told the Atlantic Council seminar that these talks should be done “at more frequent and lower levels” and should leave space for direct bargaining between Iran and the US. Brookings’ Maloney said the E3+3 negotiation process had been valuable in coordinating the international community’s position, including that of Russia and China, and should be maintained. While she thought it would be “disastrous” to expand it to countries like Turkey or Brazil, she also felt that a third-party facilitator whom both sides trust could play a useful role, and that a “parallel track” involving US-Iran talks should be envisaged.
KEEP MILITARY OPTION
The appetite around Washington for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, either Israeli or US-led, seems limited for the time being. All observers agree that nothing will happen before the US presidential elections occur, on 6 November. But beyond that, ex-Ambassador to the EU Stuart Eizenstat, despite supporting the sanctions strategy, said that it was vital that Iran also be made aware the military option is not simply on the table but can “be taken off the table and used”. Maintaining the threat of military force was essential, he argued, for the credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to prevent a nuclear arms race taking hold in the Middle East.