On Iran, don’t let up on sanctions

Can Iran be trusted? The next opportunity to gauge the regime’s nuclear intentions will come on Oct. 15, when representatives of the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) will meet with Iranian diplomats in Geneva.

What happens there should give some indication of whether Iranian President Rouhani’s conciliatory speech at the U.N. General Assembly augers a sincere willingness to negotiate an end to his country’s push for nuclear weaponry, or whether — as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu cautioned — it is a ruse to lull the world while Tehran continues its pursuit of nuclear capability.

There is one thing, though, on which both sides in this debate can agree: In addition to the threat of military attack to stop Tehran, what has impelled the rulers of Iran to move away from confrontation and at least to talk the language of moderation has been the steadily accumulating economic impact of global sanctions against Iran. That was already evident months ago, when Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, allowed the non-polarizing Rouhani to run for president, and the Iranian people voted him into office. It has now been confirmed by Rouhani’s performance at the United Nations.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said on ABC News, “One of the big lessons here is that economic sanctions do seem to work.” Reich noted that, “Iran is suffering 30 percent inflation, 20 percent unemployment.” He continued, “Our economic sanctions, because we’ve been patient with them, because we have actually rounded up almost every other nation to support us, have had a huge impact.”

So potent has been the impact of the sanctions — as well as President Obama’s promise not to take any options, including military strikes, off the table — that Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif felt the need to deny it. “President Obama’s presumption that Iran is negotiating because of his illegal threats and sanctions is disrespectful of our nation, macho, and wrong,” he tweeted.

Zarif doth protest too much. In a detailed, front-page report from Iran on Oct. 1, New York Times reporter Thomas Erdbrink detailed the economic toll that sanctions have had on the country.

While “Iran’s leaders have scoffed at Western economic sanctions, boasting that they could evade anything that came their way,” Erdbrink now finds “the leaders are acknowledging that sanctions, particularly those applied in 2010 on international financial transactions, are creating a hard-currency shortage that is bringing the country’s economy to its knees.” And the urgent need to get the sanctions lifted, wrote Erdbrink, is why President Rouhani, at the General Assembly, urged a quick resolution of the nuclear issue.

That is precisely why those sanctions should remain in place until we have clear proof that Iran has dismantled all its facilities for the production and use of nuclear weapons, including the enrichment of uranium and construction of a heavy-water reactor. If the Geneva talks do not produce a firm commitment from Iran to address the long-standing valid concerns about its nuclear program, then sanctions should be further strengthened. A bill to that effect is pending in the U.S. Senate.

Western governments are understandably tempted to respond to the Iranian show of moderation — surely a welcome relief from the outrageous, sometimes unhinged rhetoric of Rouhani’s predecessor. But a reciprocal gesture of goodwill that takes the form of a partial deal — easing some sanctions in return for one or another Iranian concession — would reduce Iran’s incentive to comply with the demand of the international community that it cease its drive to become a nuclear power, and encourage it to continue the game of stall and delay that has served it so well for years. It would also strengthen the regime in Tehran, enabling it to take credit domestically for facing down the world and slipping the noose of sanctions.

The United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia will wield the tools of diplomacy in Geneva in the hope of resolving the Iranian nuclear standoff. It is essential that the P5+1 remain resolute and united. There have been countless meetings over the years, as well as Security Council and IAEA warnings, all to no avail as Iran added more and more spinning centrifuges to its nuclear facilities.

The apparent change in Iranian strategy demonstrates that Iran will only cooperate if the economic sanctions and the credible option of force remain in place to keep its feet to the fire.

Brian Siegal is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Greater Miami and Broward Regional Office.

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