The Myth of America's 'Tough' Iran Policy

by CHRISTOPHER HOLTON March 12, 2009
The Obama administration has disclosed plans to shift U.S. policy toward Iran from the "policies of the past" to a policy of "constructive dialogue" and "mutual respect," in hopes that Iran will become benevolent and "unclench their fist."
As futile as the idea of talking to the Ayatollahs seems to sober Americans and our allies today, we must first set the record straight on those policies of the past that Obama is determined to change: America has never had a "tough" policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran has been allowed to kidnap and kill Americans for decades, whether directly or by proxy, without fear of severe repercussions. For years the U.S. State Department has declared that Iran is the world's "most active" sponsor of terrorism, yet the Ayatollahs have not been forced to pay a significant price. Iran has armed and aided our enemies –including al Qaeda-and threatened our allies and has gotten away with it.
Now, the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons along with the ballistic missiles with which to deliver them and, still, there is no tough policy toward Iran.
Though it may seem to many Americans as if the Iranian nuclear program has only come about in the past few years, it has actually been known to policymakers for a very long time.
Consider that over 15 years ago in the January 4, 1994 edition of USA Today, Clinton administration Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis had this to say about Iran's nuclear program: "Iran's actions leave little doubt that Tehran is intent upon developing a nuclear weapons capability. They are inconsistent with any rational civil nuclear program."
What did the Clinton administration do to head off Iran's nuclear program after this startling admission about Iran's nuclear intentions? Virtually nothing.
For nearly three decades now since Iranian "students" invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took U.S. hostages, sanctions against Iran have been a widely believed urban legend – and nothing more.
Even during that hostage crisis of 1979-81, President Carter was unsuccessful in convincing our closest NATO allies and Japan to participate in economic sanctions against Iran. Not even Great Britain was willing to cut off trade with Iran during that crisis period.
The U.S. has had to "go it alone" on Iran for decades. But even the U.S. has imposed only limited unilateral sanctions against Iran and never broad, far-reaching sanctions. Two successive administrations, Clinton and Bush, didn't even bother to enforce our own sanctions against Iran.
The Iran Sanctions Act, authored by Sen. Alphonse D'Amato of New York passed both houses of Congress with virtually no opposition back in 1996. That bill would have placed any foreign oil company with over $20 million in investments in Iran's oil and gas sector under U.S. sanctions. Companies like Shell and Total would have been forced to choose between doing business in America or in Iran. President Clinton signed it into law – and promptly issued waivers by executive order to every single oil company that would have been affected. Unfortunately, President Bush, on the advice of the geniuses at the State Department, continued that same waiver policy during his eight years in office.
Moreover, America has allowed our own corporations to bypass U.S. sanctions laws by using foreign cut-outs and subsidiaries to do business with the Ayatollahs. In fact, during the eight years of the Bush administration, U.S. trade with Iran actually expanded. This is especially shocking given that during much of this period Iran was operating directly in support of Jihadist insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who were killing American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, providing the terrorists with training, logistics, safe haven and advanced weaponry.
Companies like GE and HP only ceased such activity after the news media scrutinized their "end around" operations with the Iranians. Unfortunately, other U.S. companies continue to do business with Iran and multinational firms such as Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia have even provided Iran with advanced communications technology.
Two organizations, the American Enterprise Institute and United Against Nuclear Iran, have published excellent online databases of companies who provide corporate life support to the Ayatollahs.
As for sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, they have been even more limited to certain aspects of nuclear technology and arms, with virtually no impact on the Iranian economy. Even these limited sanctions have no teeth at all, which is why Iran's largest arms suppliers, Russia and China, were willing to allow them to pass in the first place.
The fact is, Iran has felt little economic pressure due to sanctions since that day 15 years ago in January 1994 when the Clinton State Department admitted to USA Today that Iran was working on nuclear weapons.
Our government has failed us. Our leaders have failed us. Nevertheless, Iran is in trouble economically, mostly due to the recent collapse in the price of oil.
What is so frustrating to those of us who are worried about the Iranian threat and have for years sought a peaceful means of addressing Iran's nuclear program and its sponsorship of terrorism, is the fact that there have never been any meaningful measures taken to bring pressure on Iran.
It is especially disappointing that America and the rest of the Free World are not willing to apply economic leverage on Iran right now because Iran's economy is hurting very badly, leaving them vulnerable to an effective sanctions regime. "Talk" in and of itself is unlikely to produce results without accompanying pressure.
Iran's economic desperation was recently illustrated in stark terms when its central bank gave the go-ahead to issue interest-bearing debentures on the international markets in direct violation of the Shariah law by which the Ayatollahs rule.
Shariah is a comprehensive body of laws governing all aspects of Islamic society, including politics, economics, finance, business, warfare and even individual dress codes and diet. It is understood in the Muslim world to be "Allah's law." Such an unprecedented move to ignore Shariah had to have come with the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran and an authority on Shariah.
Khamenei could not have granted permission to issue bonds eagerly. Something had to have forced his hand. That something is Iran's weak economic and financial condition. If truly comprehensive and tough economic sanctions were imposed on Iran now-for the very first time-Iran might very well be forced to make tough decisions on issues such as its nuclear program and support for Jihadist terrorism.
Given that the ayatollahs are now willing to overlook Shariah – the sacred code of Allah –in an effort to keep their economy afloat, they may be forced to cut back their nuclear program and reduce funding for Jihadist terrorists if their economy is dealt a blow by truly tough sanctions. Contributing Editor Christopher Holton is a Vice President with the Center for Security Policy and directs its Divest Terror Initiative and Shariah Risk Due Diligence Project.

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