Can Sanctions Stop Iran's Nuclear Program?

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Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad has compared his country's nuclear program to a train with no brakes--and no reverse gear.

But some say there is still time to persuade Iran to change course--and without the use of military action.

During their meeting in Washington last month, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both agreed that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be unacceptable.

"Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would not only be a threat to israel and a threat to the United States," said the President. "But would be profoundly destabilizing in the international community and would create an arms race in the Middle East."

President Obama added that while he hopes to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis through direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic, all options remain on the table.

With U.S. military action against Iran currently seen as unlikely, one option being discussed in Washington is tougher economic sanctions.

"We currently have the Iran Sanctions Act, which is a well-drafted piece of legislation, but which has been ignored the last 10 years by the State Department," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA).

Sherman is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsoring legislation that seeks to turn up the pressure on Iran through new, stronger sanctions. Their main target: the Islamic Republic's dependence on imported gasoline.

"Iran has to import about 40 percent of its refined petroleum--they don't have the refinery capacity," Sherman told CBN News. "And anything that stops the taxis on the streets of Tehran gets the immediate attention of the regime."

Although Iran has spent huge amounts of money and manpower on developing nuclear weapons, it has yet to figure out a way to refine its vast oil reserves into gasoline or diesel fuel.

As a result, Iran depends heavily on foreign gas to help keep its vehicles on the roads.

"What we could do is make it clear to all the banks, shipping companies, insurance companies and oil companies," said Sherman. "That if they invest in the Iranian oil sector, they transport refined petroleum into Iran, or they help Iran build refinery capacity, they will not be able to business with the United States."

Former State Department official Orde Kittrie, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation and sanctions, told CBN News that "Iran imports this gasoline from only a handful of foreign companies--no American companies." 

Kittrie pointed out that four of those companies are European: the Swiss firm Vitol; the Swiss/Dutch firm Trafigura; the French firm Total; and British Petroleum. The last company, Reliance Industries, is based in India--also a U.S. ally.

"The beauty of putting these five companies to a choice between the U.S. market and the Iranian market is that, I think, if put to such a choice, they are likely to choose the U.S. market," Kittrie said.

The Iranian regime is well aware of this vulnerability. It tried to ration gas in 2007 but backed down when violent street protests broke out.

Although the push for stronger sanctions against Iran has garnered bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill and in the White House--where President Obama has said he will consider tougher sanctions if his attempts at diplomacy fail--some analysts say that without a broad international effort that includes Russia, China and the Europeans, these measures will do little to halt Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. 

While there are recent signs that the European Union will agree to tougher sanctions if President Obama's diplomatic outreach to the Iranians fails, Russia and China, both have significant business interests in Iran and have been extremely tough to convince thus far.

But Sherman says the U.S. does have some leverage that can be used with those two nations to help bring them on board. The status of Russia's breakaway republics and China's relations with Taiwan are just two issues where the U.S. could apply pressure.

"We would have to offer Russia and China concessions on issues or, alternatively, threaten them with losing something they already have," said Sherman.

Kittrie said the U.S. should use Libya as a model when dealing with Iran.

Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program and support for terrorism in 2003 after years of international isolation and sanctions.

But right now, sanctions against Iran are much weaker than what Libya and other rogue regimes have faced.

"Sanctions were also much tougher on South Africa with respect to apartheid," said Kittrie. "With the former Yugoslavia with respect to the killings in the Balkans; with Rwanda with respect to the killings there; and in Haiti, in response to its coups."
Meanwhile, in Iran, there appears to be little debate. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenjiad said recently that Iran's nuclear program is "a finished issue."

*Originally published June 8, 2009

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CBN News
Erick Stakelbeck

Erick Stakelbeck

CBN News Correspondent

Erick Stakelbeck is a sought after authority on terrorism and national security issues with extensive experience in television, radio, and print media. Stakelbeck is a correspondent and terrorism analyst for CBN News.  Follow Erick on Twitter @Staks33.