On Iran Sanctions, Incrementalism Rules

Levey talks to reporters about Iran. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

If a bad man was about to attack you, and there was no escape, would you tackle him one limb at a time? Go for one leg, and then the arm, and then maybe the other leg, one after the other? Or would you try to take the bad man down all at once, in any way you could?

The Obama administration appears to be adopting something like the former approach with Iran. Never mind that the U.S. considers Iran the No. 1 state sponsor of terror and, because of its nuclear program, among the most critical national-security threats to the United States; that the Tehran government is now more delegitimized among its own people and has more clearly become a military autocracy than ever before; or that Tehran mockingly ignored Barack Obama’s all-carrots-and-no-sticks efforts at "engagement" for a year. The administration doesn’t seem to believe in body blows, financial or otherwise. Judging from its treatment of Iran, it seems to prefer harassment.

On Wednesday, the Treasury Department announced the latest in a series of sanctions slapped against Iranian financial companies, its shipping industry, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "entities and individuals." The move came a week after a long-awaited U.N. Security Council resolution, 1929, which was also the latest in a series. Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, who has been at this since 2006—gradually ratcheting up pressure on Iran by blacklisting the country’s banks as terrorist financiers or weapons proliferators—declared that "Iran’s choice will be increasingly clear" as a result of the latest actions. Give up its illicit weapons programs or suffer the consequences.

But a question was put to Levey at the news conference: why not make Iran’s choice suddenly and unmistakably, rather than "increasingly," clear? Why not body-slam an economy that is beholden to the IRGC and mullahs, an economy tied into Iran’s military and nuclear program in myriad ways? Levey walked reporters through the decision to designate the latest in a series of Iranian banks—the total is up to 16 now—called the Post Bank of Iran. After the previously designated bank, Bank Sepah, was sanctioned in January 2007 for providing financial services to Iran’s missile industry, Post Bank stepped in to take up many of Sepah’s international transactions. But Levey conceded that Washington hadn’t needed any new U.N. resolution to designate Post Bank—and that indeed there was no action taken under Resolution 1929 that couldn’t have been adopted under the previous resolution from 2007, 1747. Now it’s a question of awaiting the next Iranian bank to fill Post Bank’s role.

When asked about the administration’s incrementalism, Levey talked of the need to develop "evidence" against specific companies and to maintain international "legitimacy"—in other words, consensus among the major sanctioning nations, especially Russia, China, and Europe. But what’s the use of working for months to gain consensus if you’re not going to use it to make a real difference? Experts and Iranians themselves continue to indicate that any new round of incremental sanctions is not going to be enough to change the national debate. As S.M.H. Adeli, Iran's former ambassador to London, told me when I visited Iran in 2007, America's confrontational approach to Iran "has already gone on for three decades, and it hasn't worked. Why should it work now?" U.N. sanctions are shrugged off by most Iranians as a cost of doing business, adding about 6 percent to prices in general.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drove the point home after the latest sanctions resolution by declaring this week that Iran would not make "one iota of concessions." He said he wouldn’t come to talks until the West was "punished a bit."

It's all starting to seem like a charade.

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