How Obama won the right for sanctions on Iran

Iran’s snub of US overtures for engagement -- such as its test of the Sajjil-2 missile -- give Obama the moral high ground for tougher economic sanctions.

At one level, President Obama’s strategy of an outstretched US hand to Iran has failed. His attempts to engage the Islamic regime have been rejected. On Wednesday, Iran’s test of its long-range Sajjil-2 missile only gave one more slap to Mr. Obama’s policy of diplomatic engagement with US enemies. 

But wait. His patience may yet pay off. 

Mr. Obama had set an end-of-year deadline for Iran to respond to overtures he made soon after taking office. Now with Iran clearly snubbing him, the US president is in a stronger position to rally nations behind tougher international sanctions on a regime that refuses to curb its nuclear program. 

China and Russia could still insist on more patience toward Iran before they will allow the UN Security Council to ratchet up the economic isolation of Tehran. But their arguments will now ring more hollow. And their continuing willingness to trade with Iran will only expose them as complicit in starting an arms race in the Middle East and endangering Israel.

By his patience and openness to talks, Obama has earned the moral high ground for tighter, more focused sanctions. The Iranian people, too, may accept them, even if their daily lives might suffer – especially if the sale of gasoline to Iran can be blocked. 

Iranians have seen Obama’s outstretched hand rejected at the same time as they have witnessed the iron fist of their government against students who still courageously protest the flawed June 12 elections.

Even without UN support, Obama will likely be better able to persuade US allies such as Germany to join an international coalition that imposes tougher penalties. 

What’s needed is further economic targeting of the military group in Iran that is gaining extraordinary powers, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Only in  doing that can there be some chance of forcing the regime to end its processing of uranium and hiding its nuclear facilities. The Guard is increasingly vulnerable because many of its leaders are involved in Iran’s commercial trade, banks, and shipping – although they often use front companies in Europe and the Middle East. 

Tougher sanctions are also a way to keep the peace in the region as they might compel Israel to back off its apparent readiness to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

“Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war,” Obama said in his speech this month accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

He also said that the US “must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives.”

Obama has wisely tried to extend the carrot of engagement with Iran. Now he has earned the right to try a few sticks.

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