Wicker: U.S. Must Act Now With Tough Economic Sanctions on Iran

June 28, 2010

In January, I wrote a column outlining my concerns about the growing threat of a nuclear Iran and its support for international terrorism.  At the time, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had ignored a deadline on a United Nations attempt to halt uranium production, and President Obama was continuing to call for the “engagement strategy” outlined in his inaugural address. 

Now six months later, Ahmadinejad has only grown bolder.  Iran continues to develop its nuclear capability, support terrorist organizations, oppose the Middle East peace process, and violently represses its own citizens.  These actions threaten to destabilize the entire region and present an unacceptable threat to the United States and to our friends and allies.  It is clear to me that diplomatic engagement with Iran is not likely to yield significant results.  Crippling economic sanctions are the strongest non-military approach that we have left.

                              United Nations Ineffective
Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council in a 12-2 vote agreed to new sanctions against Iran. Unfortunately, these sanctions are far from crippling.  Instead, they represent a lowest common denominator approach, a typical result from the UN.  The resolution is the international equivalent to a slap on the wrist and will do little to slow the advancement of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Too many of the most important aspects of the sanctions are voluntary, and far too many loopholes exist.  The resolution also makes no mention of the Central Bank of Iran, which the Senate unanimously recommended to sanction last year when considering the Defense Authorization bill. 

The President touted passage of this resolution as a moral victory, claiming Iran is becoming more “isolated” in the world because the agreement garnered the support of Russia and China.  The reality is quite the opposite.  After a year and a half of diplomatic talks, Turkey and Brazil opposed this resolution, and therefore, unlike previous Iran sanctions, it did not pass unanimously.  The Washington Post reported the “alliance against Iran is showing new signs of vulnerability.”  This fracturing support of sanctions is very troubling and sends the wrong signal to the rest of the world about the dangers of a nuclear Iran.  

                         Congressional Action Needed
Since April 2009, Congressional leaders have been working to pass a bill that would allow the President greater authority to impose meaningful sanctions against Iran.  It appears that some progress is finally being made.  Last Monday, Senate leaders announced an agreement on a bill that would impose a wide array of tough new economic penalties.  Among other things, it would impose new sanctions on businesses that supply Iran with refined petroleum or help produce it.  The bill also would impose sanctions on financial institutions doing business with Iranian banks blacklisted by the U.S. Department of the Treasury or with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
After the agreement was reached, the Senate acted quickly to pass new sanctions legislation last Thursday.  I supported the legislation, but I have concerns about provisions in the bill that would make it easier for the President to waive sanctions for countries he certifies are cooperating with the United States.  It is my hope that the Administration will be aggressive in implementing these new rules.  We have lost 18 months to diplomatic efforts, while Iran continues to pursue a nuclear arsenal.  Time is a luxury we can no longer afford.  Preventing a nuclear armed Iran must be a top international priority. 

                         Hope for Democracy Remains
Even though relations with Iran continue to deteriorate, we must remember millions of Iranians are also frustrated with their leadership and yearn for a better way of life.  Just one year ago, these people took to the streets in democratic protest of Ahmadinejad’s hijacked re-election.  Even though the United States missed the opportunity to support the Iranian people in this movement, their resolve has not been weakened.  I am still hopeful that a democratic uprising can come from the Iranian people themselves.   The U.S. must continue to move forward with stronger economic sanctions, but we also should demonstrate support for Iranians who dream of a democratic government free from the current regime’s oppression.