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SANDERS: There are sanctions and sanctions
Question of the Day
Surprise, Surprise. Our "multilateralist" European allies — never mind the Chinese and the Russians — won't crank up Iran sanctions.
Hypocrisy has reached new heights: during the annual joint meeting between the German and Israeli Cabinets — deciding whether the Jewish state will again be gifted more submarines — comes a billion-dollar German package to subsidize the mullahs' liquefied natural gas business. The deal is the latest of 1,700 German state-subsidized export deals to Iran, which have tripled in value to $6.5 billion annually from 2000 to 2007. Some 50 German companies sell nuclear technology for Russia's Iranian Bushehr plant. And then there's non-lethal German support for Tehran's ambitious missiles program. Ditto Italy, France.
Meanwhile, President Obama might shade his eyes to survey the scene with the badly-chewed open hand he has been extending the mullahs: a nuclear-clad Tehran would not only test the mettle of Israel's "Never Again," likely producing new Mideast wars. It would redraw the world strategic map.
Just the threat has sent the Saudis again throwing money at Iranian ally Syria. Riyadh is trying to coax the Gulf minipetrostates into appeasement of Big Brother just across their pond. [They don't call it the Persian Gulf for nothing.] A whirling idiosyncratic regime in Ankara bites its nails.
With nuclear weapons to dominate Arab oil, the mullahs might even halt the escalating erosion of their failed theocracy. Iranian WMD could help stifle nascent domestic dissidence with dreams of a new Persian empire — especially after latecomer Mr. Obama's tepid endorsement of its martyrs. (The 1938 Munich Pact not only armed the Nazis with the Skoda armory's weapons for the attack on Poland, but it fed German nationalism.)
In this muddle, conventional wisdom holds American unilateral sanctions won't work. That's patently wrong. As always, the devil is in the details.
When President Bush finally went after Pyongyang's fronts in Macao — threatening Chinese banks dealing with them — Beijing saw to it that decades of counterfeiting $100 bills stopped, and Kim Jong-il had to look elsewhere for laundered money to cover his Danish pork tab.
New York City District Attorney Robert Morgenthau has got the Treasury Department, after years of dithering, to move on flamboyant sanctions violators. Probably working around presidential adviser Paul Volcker — the Swiss' favorite American banker — Credit Suisse forfeited a $536 million fine for helping clients evade sanctions, giving up names. The U.K.'s Lloyds paid $350 million to the Treasury and Mr. Morgenthau's prosecution for setting up a special unit to flummox authorities. Barclays is under investigation. Mr. Morgenthau hints that Washington should do more, warning against Caracas' growing ties to Iran.
If U.S. sanctions haven't worked against Burma's thugs — Sen. Jim Webb's endless mantra echoing in Foggy Bottom — it just could be because Chevron (and its predecessor Unocal) and Total have poured billions into the thugs' pockets, receipts from a gas pipeline to Thailand built with slave labor.
The real question, as more often than not, is whether Mr. Obama will act. State has done a soft-shoe dance with Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, for a ban on Iran's imports of petroleum products. But the legislation is camouflage. Does anyone really believe the always ambivalent Indians and the fragile Gulf states would halt the lucrative trade or that Washington would jeopardize relations to enforce it?
Furthermore, as George Washington University professor Hossein Askari points out, it might have unanticipated consequences: Tehran's more serious economic planners would welcome reducing extravagant consumption, saving foreign exchange and trimming monstrous subsidies — all the while blaming it on the Great Satan.
Equally lame is the purported effort to go after accounts of the Revolutionary Guards. Dubai, for example, certainly before its recent near-collapse, is happy hunting ground for South Asian embezzling politicians hiding their loot. And what about the VIP thieves running Iran? But really effective — the operative word — unilateral sanctions against Iran could add one last straw to break the mullahs' back.
It requires sanctioning the central bank of Iran and cutting off its credit lines to other central banks like Malaysia's. It means squashing letters of credit from American banks.
Most painfully, it means going after some of the 2 million Iranian-Americans who flout the IRS by not reporting worldwide income. In the former environment, no one could blame them — many are refugees from the regime itself — for making a buck on the 15-20 percent interest rates on Iran-based accounts. But the income-tax law ought to be enforced, and Mr. Berman ought to have a heart-to-heart talk with some of his constituents.
But in Washington, true enough, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has his hands full. New duty calls in trying to mitigate the scapegoating "populist" strategy of his boss against the banks, with Mr. Obama now threatening New York City's role as the world's pre-eminent financial center.
Given the high priority Iran holds in the long litany of U.S. foreign policy issues — not the least its state terrorist maneuvers in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Bahrain, Yemen, and most importantly Iraq and Afghanistan — an authentic sanctions route ought to be tried. Tried before it is too late.
• International Business Editor Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics and business-economics.
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