The Macropolitical Moment: Sanctions Against Iran

The technical details of the sanctions agreed today by the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council against Iran are just dribbling out. They will doubtless be too strong for some, and too weak for others. China and Russia wouldn't have agreed to them if their economic and power-projecting interests were harmed. But for the administration, the announcement could not have been better timed.

They (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in particular) get world headlines to the effect of "World Rebukes Iran."

Iran had just completed a nuclear fuel swap deal with Turkey and Venezuela in an effort to stall sanction talks. And today marks the beginning of the Senate debate on whether to ratify the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia. The treaty is a major part of the U.S.'s nonproliferation strategy. Iran's ability to flaunt its noncompliance with the IAEA and its own treaty commitments has provided an excuse for domestic opponents of the administration's policy, who believe that President Obama's conciliatory approach to Iran was inherently flawed. For a while, it appeared as if even sanctions were out of reach, because Russia and China felt empowered by the U.S.'s soft-power approach.

But then came the U.S.-Russia reset, widely mocked, but which has resulted in what appears to be a good working relationship between the two countries. Working with Russia so closely on Iran sanctions helped to bring China on board. So did the U.S. decision not to tag China with being a "currency manipulator."

According to reports, the sanctions will include inspections of all cargo ships about to enter Iranian territory, although apparently not by force, restrictions on the sale of virtually all types of weapons and munitions to the country, new asset freezes on Iranian government and Revolutionary Guard possessions and bank accounts. Reuters suggests that the US will  continue to lobby foreign firms that do business in Iran, an approach that has been successful.  Not included: oil sanctions.

Both Russia and China have refused to endorse sanctions that might harm their economic interests. Russia won't say yes to import sanctions. And the U.S. made sure that China received some assurances that if Iran cuts off its supply of oil to the country, Saudi Arabia will fill the gap.," a U.S. official said via e-mail.

This is something the U.S., having dedicated itself to the notion that isolating Iran is a better endgame than the sanctions themselves, has accepted. The sanctions "are not an end -- they are a means of upping the pressure on Iran, and increasing its isolation. And we are confident that we are steadily increasing that pressure and isolation

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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