October 26, 2007
Q1: What impact will U.S. sanctions have on Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
A1: The sanctions imposed by the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury on October 25 are directed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and their affiliated financial institutions and were imposed in response to the IRGC’s ballistic missile–related activities. The missile-related focus of the sanctions, however, can have a spillover affect in constraining the IRGC’s ability to finance parts of its operations, which extend into most areas of Iran’s military procurement, including its nuclear development program. This may, in turn, make it harder for Iran to procure the materials and technology needed from overseas to complete its plans to operate an industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility.
The focus of the sanctions on missile activities raises a serious question, however. The purpose of the sanctions, presumably, is to convince key officials within the IRGC to sour on the nuclear program and to support policies within the Iranian government that could lead Iran to forgo the most sensitive parts of its nuclear ambitions (i.e., enrichment and reprocessing). However, it is likely that Iran’s missile programs will continue even if it agrees to suspend or end its nuclear activities. Iran’s missile programs, which unlike its nuclear activities, are not being pursued in violation of international law or UN Security Council edicts, were begun after Iraq’s missile bombardment of Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war and are closely integrated with Iran’s active military services. This suggests that the missile programs and the missile-related sanctions will remain in place even if Iran complies on the nuclear issue, thus undermining any positive impact on the nuclear issue the sanctions may have been designed to have.
Q2: As Iran seeks to expand its power in the Gulf and the Middle East, will the U.S. sanctions embolden or isolate Iran with its neighbors and within the region? What will sanctions mean for U.S. credibility within the region?
A2: In and of themselves, it is doubtful that the sanctions will have a major impact on Iran’s behavior or its relations with others in the region. Many of Iran’s neighbors are concerned about its hegemonic intentions, but they are also concerned about the long-term commitment of the United States to the region. To the extent that the United States focuses on the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program and its broader policies in the region, America’s ability to influence Iran’s neighbors will be enhanced. However, Iraq and the endgame there will have a much greater influence on how the United States is perceived in the region than any near- or mid-term financial moves Washington might make.
Q3: Will U.S. sanctions influence our allies in Europe and Asia to impose similar sanctions? Specifically, will Russia and China continue to oppose sanctions on Iran?
A3: The Bush administration imposed unilateral sanctions due, in part, to growing frustration over the slow pace of international efforts to pressure Iran to change the direction of its nuclear program. It is possible that Washington is trying to use what leverage it has to demonstrate to European and other powers that the United States may have to rely increasingly on unilateral coercive measures unless an international consensus on Iran can be maintained. The sanctions against Iran’s banking institutions will likely force more countries in Europe and Asia to reconsider their financial relationships with targeted Iranian entities and banks. It is also possible that the U.S. moves might convince Russia and China to be more supportive of certain sanctions on Iran. However, both countries are also likely to respond with concern that further sanctions could lead to a more acute crisis and risk open military conflict with Iran, something both states would likely oppose.
Jon Wolfsthal is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2007 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.