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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another round of toothless sanctions?

It is indicative of the situation we face that when I did a Google image search for this post, as soon as I added the word "sanctions" to the word "toothless" in my search, all of the top results were related to Iran. There's a message there. Unfortunately, it's a message that is not being heard by the Obama administration.

Last Friday, Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl) and Howard Berman (D-Ca) introduced significantly strengthened sanctions legislation against Iran. But Jonathan Tobin justifiably asks whether there's a point to Ros-Lehtinen's and Berman's legislation.
That ought to mean that the tyrants of Tehran will be squeezed even more in the months to come making it harder for them to continue their policies of exporting terror to the Middle East via their Hamas and Hezbollah allies as well as impacting their dangerous plans for nuclear capability. Except that it won’t. As even Ros-Lehtinen and Berman admitted after introducing their bill, sanctions passed by Congress that are not enforced by the executive branch are basically meaningless.

This is not the first Iran sanctions bill passed by Congress. Last year, another, less stringent sanctions law was passed. But the problem with that bill was not so much that it was weaker than the new bill but that the Obama administration wouldn’t enforce it. As the New York Times reported last December, the Treasury Department has granted over 10,000 exemptions from Iran sanctions in the last decade. The waivers that each sanctions bill includes, give the administration the power to allow companies to ignore our policy on Iran. This process has escalated during the Obama administration. The administration’s willingness to grant waivers has made a mockery of even the mild sanctions that are already in place. That renders the expected passage of the new sanctions bill a mere act of symbolism that will once again impress upon the Iranians America’s lack of seriousness.
There are two alternatives here. One is to look for ways that sanctions legislation could be made meaningful. For example, Congress could take away the President's discretion to grant waivers from the sanctions. In an election year, that might not even draw a veto from the White House, which may prefer to avoid a confrontation over its lack of enforcement of Iran sanctions. Of course, getting the President to enforce the law is a different story (look at his Attorney General!), but at least the blame for Iran's continued progress toward nuclear weapons would be squarely placed in Obama's court. Will the Democrats go along with legislation like that? I doubt it.

The other alternative would put the US in the same boat as Israel is in. Tobin points out the construction of underground missile silos in Venezuela, an issue I discussed here. Obviously, one of the things those missile silos are meant to do is to give Iran an effective second-strike capability (at least against the US) in the event that its nuclear missiles are taken out. At some point, the US will have to decide whether it will allow construction of those missile silos and the deployment of missiles therein to continue, just like Israel may at some point have to decide that it has had enough of Iran's nuclear weapons development.

One of the missiles that Iran intends to deploy in Venezuela is the Shehab-3, which can be outfitted with a nuclear warhead. This means that if Iran is allowed to continue with its plans to develop nuclear weapons, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the United States could find itself confronted with nuclear weapons in range of Florida and much of the southeastern United States. Would it be better to enact real sanctions against Iran if there is some hope of avoiding that confrontation? Definitely. Can Obama be convinced? If not, there's an election in 18 months.

What could go wrong?

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