U.S. Aims to Avoid Angering Iran's Public
Steven R. Weisman, The New York Times:
As Western governments debate how to punish Iran for its nuclear activities, Bush administration and European officials said Thursday that they wanted to avoid causing hardship or more anti-Western resentment in the Iranian public. READ MORE
The officials said that sanctions were not in the offing anytime soon, and they had ruled out any early steps toward an oil embargo or other sorts of sweeping economic punishments that would not only be opposed in Europe but would also cause internal suffering in Iran.
Iran's leverage over the West because of its oil exports and trade agreements are a fact of life that American and European officials said made sanctions in that area impractical. But these officials also argue the importance of not alienating Iranians who might support the West, causing them to rally around their leaders.
"A heavy-handed sanctions approach is going to hurt an awful lot of Iranians that we don't want to alienate," said a State Department official who is working on the issue. "We're going to have to be more surgical."
President Bush and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany discussed the need for "smart sanctions" in a meeting last week, according to a German diplomatic official, with Mrs. Merkel in particular pushing for care in not angering the Iranian public.
Various Western diplomats said Thursday that one way of punishing Iranian leaders would be to impose travel bans or freeze the assets of government officials in crucial ministries or business leaders close to the theocracy. Another step might involve acting against any businesses connected to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. Iran has denied having any such program.
Bush administration officials cited as an example the Treasury Department's move on Wednesday to freeze assets of the director of Syrian military intelligence over that country's involvement in the assassination of Lebanese political figures.
The issue of penalties has become more pressing as a Feb. 2 emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency approaches. Western officials are planning to refer Iran for action at that meeting, and proposals will then be considered in the United Nations Security Council and referred back to the atomic agency.
Even as the notion of sweeping sanctions was being discounted, however, the administration also came under pressure on Thursday to move quickly toward such penalties. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, a leading Democrat, announced that he would shortly introduce a resolution calling for just such a step.
"We have wasted valuable time, diverted resources and ignored this problem at our peril," Mr. Bayh said, noting that he supports a ban on gasoline sales to Iran and other economic punishments. "No one wants to forestall the need to use military force more than I do, but if we are to do so, we must act now."
As a practical matter, a resolution like the one Mr. Bayh put forward might be popular among senators but would also be unlikely to be voted on quickly, especially if the administration wants to hold off on punishments while it is in the final throes of negotiating with Europeans on what to do about Iran.
Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Senator Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, also said the committee generally favored waiting for the last stages of diplomacy to be played out before sanctions on Iran are considered.
Even then, Mr. Fisher said, sanctions should be imposed in a way that did not replicate what happened in Iraq in the 1990's, when a ban on oil exports caused huge suffering among Iraqis but also led to profits among Saddam Hussein and his clique as they evaded the sanctions through the black market.
In their discussions last week, Mrs. Merkel gave Mr. Bush a personal example of how such sanctions affected her fellow East Germans during the Communist years, the German diplomatic official said Thursday. She recalled that she and other Germans sympathetic to the West had no problem with Western actions that punished Communist leaders but that "if we ran out of oranges or bananas, then we didn't like it."
Even attempts to put pressure on the Soviet Union by banning their participation in the 1980 Olympics were unpopular among sympathetic Germans, Mrs. Merkel was said to have told Mr. Bush.
The president's reaction was not known, but an administration official said a ban on World Cup participation was not being considered. Indeed, administration officials have maintained that permitting Iranian athletes or musicians to travel to the West should be encouraged, to help open Iran to outside influences, encourage defections and lead eventually to internal demands for change. "The focus on smart sanctions makes sense because they work the best," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Big economic sanctions would not only be difficult to get, but Iran has vast foreign reserves from its oil revenues, so they can ride out what gets thrown at them."
Mr. Clawson, who has written extensively about Iran, said Iranian leaders were acutely sensitive to being diplomatically isolated so that travel bans and asset freezes "offer some pretty good prospects." A side benefit of such smaller sanctions, he said, is that "what might be easier to achieve would also be more effective."
American and European experts on Iran say corruption is a major problem and many Iranian leaders have foreign bank accounts, though they are in Europe and not the United States. Eventually, if negotiations fail to stop Iran from enriching uranium or taking other steps opposed by the West, European countries might act against those accounts, various diplomats said.
Syrian Backs Iran Nuclear Aims
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria greeted the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Damascus on Thursday and said he supported Iran's drive for a peaceful nuclear program.
"Syria supports the right of Iran and any country in the world to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes," Mr. Assad said during a joint news conference with Mr. Ahmadinejad. "Those countries which object to this issue did not offer convincing reasons as to whether this is legitimate or not."
During the news conference, Mr. Assad also repeated his long-standing demand that Israel give up nuclear weapons, and he insisted that any counterproliferation effort in the Middle East should begin with pressure on Israel.
Thursday was the first day of Mr. Ahmadinejad's two-day visit to Syria, his first there since becoming president in August.
The trip comes two weeks before an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board to discuss Iran's nuclear program.