New York Times: It was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who, nearly a year ago, fired the Obama administration’s first warning shots about imposing “crippling sanctions” against Iran. The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — It was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who, nearly a year ago, fired the Obama administration’s first warning shots about imposing “crippling sanctions” against Iran.
Then came President Obama’s declaration that if Iran did not respond to his overtures for a negotiated end to its production of nuclear fuel by the end of 2009, he would quickly add a “pressure track” to his diplomacy. At the beginning of this year, American and European officials predicted a sanctions resolution at the United Nations Security Council — the fourth in four years — by February to pave the way for much stronger crackdowns by individual countries.
Now, all those projections look optimistic. The French are predicting no action until June. Many other Western allies agree. No one in the Obama administration has used the word “crippling” in public in a long while; instead, the new line is that taking time and maintaining unity — code words for Chinese and Russian cooperation — are more important than rushing ahead amid international divisions over how best to convince Iran that the cost of continuing uranium enrichment will be prohibitive.
The delays and the potential for a substantially watered-down resolution, Mr. Obama’s allies say, have put the administration’s credibility on the line in one of its biggest foreign policy challenges. But it also highlights the difficulty he has encountered demonstrating results from the underlying argument of his engagement with Iran: that if he made a bona fide effort to negotiate and was rebuffed, it would be a lot easier to win meaningful sanctions.
Mr. Obama has stopped talking about timing, but he insists that he is driving toward sanctions far tougher than anything the Bush administration won.
“We’re going to go after aggressive sanctions,” he said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday. “We haven’t taken any options off the table,” he said, repeating the line that presidents use to hint that military options are still possible, though the Pentagon leadership has often said it believed that option could start a cascade of events that could spill out of control.
When they are speaking with the cover of anonymity, though, some senior administration officials acknowledge that if there are sanctions, they may take months to enact, while Iran steadily adds to its stockpile of fuel.
That certainly was not the plan. When Mr. Obama revealed in September that Iran had been caught building a secret nuclear enrichment plant, deep inside a mountain on a military base near Qum, many officials thought the revelation would have severe diplomatic effects.
But the discovery did not have the galvanizing effect many in the administration hoped it would. Now the administration is discovering what President George W. Bush discovered: winning each successive round of sanctions against Iran is harder and harder, and takes considerably longer than anyone predicted at the outset.
The dance is familiar. The Security Council first imposed sanctions on Iran in December 2006. Since then every successive resolution has barred more Iranian generals and scientists from travel, and called on countries to cut off many kinds of trade with the nation, including weapons. One Iranian bank failed as a result. But the last resolution, in 2008, was watered down, partly because of Chinese objections and partly because of a 2007 American intelligence report that cast doubt on whether Iran’s weapons activities had been halted.
The Obama administration is slowly walking back the conclusions of that intelligence report, and it has talked about focusing new sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which runs the military side of the nuclear program and has cracked down on antigovernment protesters. The hope is that Iranian citizens, millions of whom detest the guard, might cheer anything that weakens the institution.
White House officials have dropped, at least for now, talk of cutting off refined gasoline products to Iran, for fear that would hurt the people more than the government.
But even that formula has failed to move the Chinese, at least so far. “The Chinese just keep saying that sanctions won’t work, they just get vague about why it won’t work,” said one official who has engaged in the argument with them.
Nations opposing a quick move to sanctions also cite evidence that Iran has run into troubles in its enrichment program, meaning there may be more time available to stop the country before it reaches the ability to produce nuclear weapons. But past experience — from fanciful estimates of Iraq’s program to underestimates of North Korea’s and Pakistan’s — suggests that intelligence on those issues is not always reliable in either direction.
As time has dragged on, the objectives of the sanctions have become a bit fuzzy. The first three sets of sanctions imposed by the Security Council were tightly linked to the objective of enforcing the United Nation’s demand that Iran halt enrichment, the process of purifying fuel. Officially, that is still the objective.
But clearly sanctions aimed at the Revolutionary Guards have a second objective: striking at the heart of power within the Iranian government. Mrs. Clinton recently charged that the Guards were silently taking over the country. The State and Treasury Departments have loosened restrictions on some free Internet services to Iran, like instant messaging, chat and photo sharing, in clear hopes of keeping the opposition movement alive.
No one knows if those methods will keep the opposition alive. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon E. Panetta, said in an appearance in Oklahoma last week that it was “our analysis that the regime is not in immediate danger of collapsing.”
The right path, he said, was “to keep the pressure on” with sanctions. But to accomplish that, the administration needs to decide whether it is better to wait a few months for yet another United Nations blessing, or to move ahead with actions by Washington and its allies.