US, allies reviewing sanctions on Iran: How much pain will it take?

Following two days of talks in Geneva that failed to address concerns about Iran's nuclear program, the US is signaling its readiness to seek even harsher sanctions.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Actors, dressed as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from the group called 'Iran 180' demonstrate in New York's Times Square on December 10. The group demands a 180-degree turn by the Iranian government in their alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

When it comes to US policy on Iran, the White House is signaling a move toward a variation of “no pain, no gain.”

A senior White House official on Friday suggested that the US will soon seek adoption of even tougher sanctions on Iran, having concluded that the international sanctions reinforced this year are hurting but not yet causing enough hardship to alter Tehran’s behavior.

Gary Samore, President Obama’s special assistant for arms control and nuclear proliferation issues, told a Washington conference that the US and its partners aligned against a nuclear Iran are likely to “increase pressure” in the coming weeks in response to Iran’s refusal to address international concerns about its uranium enrichment program.

“We need to send the message to Iran that sanctions will only increase if Iran avoids serious negotiations, and will not be lifted until our concerns are fully addressed,” Mr. Samore told a conference organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Suggesting that talks this week in Geneva between Iran and world powers including the US fell short of what were already low expectations, the president’s top nuclear adviser said another round of sanctions would be one way of testing “how high Iran’s pain threshold is.”

The two days of talks in Geneva – characterized by one European diplomat as the two sides talking past each other – did conclude with an agreement to meet again next month in Turkey. But the failure to address any substantive issues and the Iranian delegation’s refusal to entertain discussion of its uranium enrichment program apparently led to the White House decision to speak publicly of additional turns of the screws.

Before this week’s talks, a senior European diplomat in Washington had said privately that the chief aim of the European countries involved in the talks was to break Iran’s pattern of agreeing to negotiations to look serious, but in fact only using them to buy time for its nuclear program to progress. In addition to the US, China, and Russia, the talks with Iran involve Britain, France, and Germany.

Samore suggested a similar concern, saying Iran “believes it can manipulate the appearance of negotiations to weaken existing sanctions and avoid additional measures.”

“This ploy will not work,” he said.

Following Samore’s remarks, a California congressman proposing new measures to close loopholes that Iran has found in existing sanctions told the same conference that tougher sanctions could lead to a more democratic regime in Iran.

Referring to the sanctions that he said helped end apartheid in South Africa, Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat, said, “Nelson Mandela has thanked us for those sanctions, and I look forward to the day when a democratic leader of Iran thanks us for these sanctions.”

That comment is unlikely to be well-received in Tehran. Officials there have long been convinced that the Western powers’ punitive measures are really aimed at achieving regime change and not simply at limiting the country’s nuclear program.

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