October 1, 2009 | Scripps Howard News Service

Can Sanctions “Cripple” Iran?

In 1981, Israeli leaders sent bombers to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak. Rafael Eitan, then Israel's Army Chief of Staff, is said to have explained the motivation succinctly: “The alternative is our destruction.”

Three decades later, the militant jihadist regime in Iran is developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. It is also, not just coincidently, supporting terrorists groups abroad, facilitating the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, vowing to wipe Israel off the map, and promising, in the longer term, “a world without America.”

It's a plan — one that we will find a way to stop if we have learned anything from history. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have said it would be unacceptable for Iran's current rulers to have their fingers on nuclear triggers. The reality, however, is that the Bush administration took no serious steps to prevent Tehran from making progress toward that goal, and it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will bring change on this critical issue of national and international security.

Israel's attack on Saddam's nuclear facilities resulted in a chorus of international condemnation. Over time, however, minds changed.  “[W]hat the Israelis did at Osirak in 1981 …in retrospect, was a really good thing,” President Bill Clinton later said, articulating what has become the consensus view on both the moderate left and the moderate right.

Still, does history need be repeated? Must it come down to the United States and the “international community” doing nothing, and Israelis deciding whether to use military force against Iran's nuclear weapons facilities — which have been dispersed and hardened in a way Saddam's were not?

There is one other possibility, one non-military tool that has not been utilized: serious economic sanctions, or as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has phrased it: “crippling sanctions.” If sanctions were to cause Iran's rulers to worry whether their drive for nuclear weapons is weakening — rather than strengthening — their hold on power, that could lead to a breakthrough. Or, if the discomfort caused by the sanctions were to prompt Iranians to rise up even more strongly against their oppressors, that also might bring a positive result – for Iranians and for the rest of the world.

What would serious sanctions look like? To begin, the US, perhaps with the assistance of some European allies — French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have all indicated support — would cut off shipments of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran.

Only a few companies, mostly European, now supply these products which Iran desperately needs because, though a major oil producer, it has constructed few oil refineries. Shipping companies, banks and insurance companies that underwrite the trade also could be discouraged from continuing to participate in this business. Legislation to achieve such results, for example, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, has strong bipartisan support — three-quarters of both the Senate and the House.

James Woolsey, CIA director under President Clinton, has suggested that the White House and Congress, in addition, should make clear that from now on “any company that does any kind of business with an Iranian entity – not just the Revolutionary Guards, not just oil and gas companies, but any entity – can do no business with the United States government.”

Time is of the essence: Iran's rulers already are conspiring with anti-American autocrats – in Russian, China, Venezuela and Turkmenistan, for example – to find ways to break such an embargo, should it be imposed.

There are those advising President Obama that such pressure can only serve to antagonize Iran's rulers – who, they insist, have legitimate grievances against us but really only crave respect and are eager for dialogue, compromise and cooperation.  It requires forbearance — given repeated Iranian nuclear cheating, the fraudulent elections and the brutal oppression of protestors, the empowerment of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the use of Iranian weapons and perhaps operatives to kill Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and, before that, in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, the Holocaust denial and the genocidal threats — not to regard these advisors as terminally naïve.

Others argue that nothing short of military force can be effective, that Iran's rulers will withstand economic pressure,  no matter how crippling, in order to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction they can use to intimidate – or incinerate — those they see as enemies of God. They believe it is too late for sanctions to work.

But why not test that theory – and quickly given that Iran is now sprinting toward the finish line? If sanctions prove ineffective, at least we will know for certain that only two options remain. The first is bad:  the use of force by the U.S. or, more likely, Israel. The second is worse: watching passively for the second time in less than a hundred years as fanatical and ruthless tyrants acquire the capabilities to match their clearly stated intentions.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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