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Viewpoint: Keep all options on the table

BY MAX HELLER

Published April 10, 2012

In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last month, President Barack Obama emphasized that all options must remain on the table in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He has also continuously stressed that the world must give economic sanctions a chance to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions before any potential military action is discussed. It’s critical to recognize that while American efforts to impose sanctions have been admirable, the idea of sanctions necessitate full international cooperation in order to realize their intended impact.

Oftentimes, commentators are critical of sanction skeptics who doubt that they will effectively dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It’s presumed that these skeptics desire an armed military conflict with Iran and are chastised as being the same “hawks that got the United States into Iraq.” That misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. The reservation that many harbor about sanctions is not that they can’t or won’t work. Rather, the lack of cooperation around the implementation of sanctions means that we may never witness their intended impact.

This rationale is ever-present in Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s assessment of the situation. Barak surmised on CNN that the “tightest possible sanctions … should be ratcheted in a way that will effectively corner (Iran).”

Barak lacks confidence in the current level of sanctions, but does believe that with enough cooperation, sanctions may have a shot at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambition. Hence, it is increasingly troubling to watch China and Russia hesitate to adopt the same type of stiff sanctions imposed by the United States and embraced by the European Union. While the U.S. and EU members have taken steps to prevent businesses based in their countries from engaging in trade with Iran, two of the world’s largest economic behemoths continue to provide a lifeline to Tehran, even though it’s increasingly clear that the Iranian nuclear program poses a significant threat to the world community.

Some Chinese and Russian businesses have decided on their own that it’s a wise decision to halt trade with Iran. Take for example, China P&I Club, a ship insurer that had, until recently, provided indemnity cover for tankers carrying Iranian oil exports. Due to the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the E.U., China P&I Club found that it was one of the only players left in a market in which operating as such poses a large amount of financial risk. Thus, they decided to halt providing such coverage.

While the example of the China P&I Club may leave us feeling warm about the potential for sanctions to realize their intended impact, imagine how much more effective the effort would be if such action was mandated by the Chinese and Russian governments the same way the U.S. and E.U. have done. All ship insurers would immediately exit the Iranian market, depriving ships of coverage and thus cutting off Iranian oil exports.

Unfortunately, such isolation of Iran is unlikely to be realized due to China and Russia’s refusal to fully adopt sanctions. Thus, when Israel and the U.S. discuss leaving all options on the table vis-à-vis Iran, it’s not a position taken by choice. The only reason they are forced into discussing the possibility of armed conflict is because other critical players have already chosen their position: they would rather allow the development of a nuclear Iran than participate in a comprehensive sanctions process.

Some critics argue that the best way to handle Iran is to hold diplomatic talks without preconditions in order to dissuade the Iranians from pursuing a nuclear weapon. However, people like Clare Lopez, a former CIA operations officer and presently a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy, recognize that such a tactic plays into the hands of Iran, as it will enable them to continue kicking the can down the road and running out the clock in pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Lopez is scheduled to visit the University on April 15 at the Ford School of Public Policy to discuss the most effective strategies to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Max Heller is a junior in the business school.


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