Obama's Quiet Success on Iran Sanctions

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Ever since revelations in September that Iran has been covertly enriching uranium, presumably for the purposes of developing nuclear weapons, President Obama's response has been clear and persistent but elusive. He has sought strong international sanctions against Iran, which would require the approval of the United Nations Security Council. That means convincing Russia and China, which have opposed sanctions, not to use their much-threatened Security Council veto. After months of wrangling, Obama has not secured their support, nor did he emphasize sanctions at this week's nuclear security summit. This had led many observers to declare Obama's agenda of curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions a total failure. But the reality is more complicated, and Obama may have made more progress than first meets the eye. Even if it looks like China and Russia are stringing Obama along, they could actually be playing right into his hands.

Obama's long courting of Chinese and Russian support of sanctions has eschewed the presidential bully pulpit, from which Obama has repeatedly condemned Iran, as well as George W. Bush's preferred style of forging personal relationships with fellow heads of state, in favor of behind-the-scenes horse trading. As the New York Times' Peter Baker explains, Obama's strategy, heavy on sticks and carrots but light on idealism, is "much more realpolitik than his predecessor's." By softening criticism of human rights concerns in China and Russia and aligning their economic interests with his own foreign policy agenda, Obama has come surprisingly close to a Security Council agreement on Iran.

Russia has several good reasons to support sanctions. With Obama scaling back Bush's promised missile shield in eastern Europe, Russia now has a vested interest in deterring Middle East-based arsenals. The state's ailing economy has led it to draw closer to Western Europe in search of lucrative contracts from state-run businesses, thus making Russia more reliant on Western European governments and more open to their demands of tough Iran sanctions. Russia could finally turn against Iran over the natural gas market, where Iran threatens Russia's stronghold on the Eurasian market. The two countries have the world's largest natural gas reserves. In 2001, Iran secured a 25-year deal to sell 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey, which it has since increased by piping in gas from Central Asia. Were Turkey to extend its Iranian pipeline into Europe, it could edge into one of Russia's most important revenue sources. Tough sanctions would slow or altogether block any attempt by Iran to sell natural gas to a wider market. It would also ensure that Iran, by not developing nuclear power, will consume more of its natural gas, thus exporting less.

Chinese support of Iran sanctions has been much more elusive. Obama has looked the other way on currency manipulation, delaying a report expected to denounce Chinese currency policy. President Hu Jintao's agreement to attend the nuclear security summit at all was portrayed by Western media as a victory, and Hu emerged from a lengthy Monday meeting with Obama pledging support on Iran sanctions. But China has made, and broken, similar promises before. Far from distancing itself from Tehran, China has only strengthened its economic ties to Iran in the two days since Hu's announcement, increasing China's already substantial gas exports to an Iranian market otherwise starved by international sanctions.

China's recalcitrance may not be the setback for Obama's agenda that it seems. It's easy to forget, Obama's ultimate goal isn't sanctioning Iran. Rather, sanctions are merely the means to Obama's end of deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And, in that case, the perceived threat of sanctions may be enough. Indeed, they may be more effective. As many observers have pointed out, imposing sanctions does not always change a state's behavior, and in some cases it even exacerbates bad behavior. After all, North Korea's pariah status has only emboldened its pursuit of rogue nuclear programs. If the U.N. Security Council passes a sanctions plan, Iran could calculate that defying those sanctions would be worthwhile. But, by facing U.N. sanctions that remain hypothetical and undefined, Tehran is forced to assume the worst-case scenario.

U.S. observers might be endlessly frustrated by watching Russia and China endlessly consider, but never quite embrace, supporting sanctions. But their not-quite-there attitude is a tremendous deterrent to Iran's leadership, who are wary of flouting its nuclear program or otherwise acting out in a way that might tilt China and Russia against them. The U.S. doesn't need to drive Iran into a sanctions-led economic depression. It just needs the credible threat that it could. As long as Obama appears just on the verge of securing Russian and Chinese support, Iran will not risk helping him.

Image: Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. Eric Fefferberg/AFP/Getty


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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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