Iran and North Korea Show the Limits of Sanctions

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U.S. diplomats have done their best to trumpet the milquetoast sanctions imposed on Iran Saturday by the U.N. Security Council as raising pressure on the Islamic Republic to end its nuclear defiance. But Tehran may instead be buoyed by last week's events in Beijing, where the failure of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program highlighted the limits of Washington's diplomatic arsenal.

Following North Korea's October nuclear test, the U.S. had also managed to convince the U.N. Security Council to impose wrist-slap sanctions on Pyongyang. But despite the unanimous support for the sanctions resolution, such key players as China and South Korea made clear that there were strict limits to the pressure they would apply, and that the only game in town remains the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons in exchange for political and economic incentives.

And once those talks resumed, the North Koreans tried to turn the U.S. sanctions strategy on its head, insisting that no progress was possible as long as the U.S. Treasury Department kept in place measures that have frozen North Korean funds in a bank in Macau, in retaliation for alleged counterfeiting activities. It even threatened to raise the stakes with further nuclear tests. Clearly, North Korea believes its nuclear test has strengthened its bargaining position, and it sees South Korea and China resisting U.S. calls for harsher action as signaling the limited options available to Washington; essentially, the outcome will be dictated more by what Beijing wants than by what Washington wants. While U.S. diplomats insist Beijing and Washington are on the same page on the issue, the extent of their unanimity will be revealed early in the New Year by the extent to which either side modifies its terms for continuing the six-party process. (Beijing remains the main source of real leverage over the regime in Pyongyang, by virtue of its economic and energy ties.)

There are, of course, key differences between the showdowns with Iran and with North Korea, but most of them work in Tehran's favor:

  • Despite concerns over its transparency and compliance with all requirements of the international monitoring system, Iran is not currently accused by the U.N. of maintaining a nuclear-weapons program, and it remains within the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty — the Security Council's concern is that Iran's defiance of demands over its uranium enrichment program may be a sign that it is assembling the means to build nuclear weapons. (North Korea, by contrast, walked out of the NPT and tested a nuclear weapon, leaving no doubt over its capacity or intent.)
  • Unlike North Korea's hermit kingdom, Iran is an integral part of the world economy as its fourth-largest supplier of oil — with much of its output consumed by China, India and Japan. Most of the international community will view comprehensive sanctions against Iran as unthinkable in light of the impact they would have on global oil prices, and therefore on the global economy as a whole. Indeed, world oil prices have begun to creep upwards since Saturday's sanctions resolution.
  • Unlike North Korea, Iran also has leverage that can influence U.S. prospects in difficult conflict zones, i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan.

    And Tehran will also be encouraged by the similarities between the two cases — the fact that military action is widely seen as carrying risks that outweigh benefits in each case, and the fact that the U.S. and its allies have only managed to muster support for sanctions by diluting them to the point of being largely symbolic, because of opposition by key Security Council players such as Russia and China.

    Despite Saturday's sanctions vote, the international consensus remains that diplomacy offers the only route to settling the Iran nuclear standoff. But the sanctions resolution looks unlikely to make Iran more amenable to addressing international concerns; instead it will likely push back and take steps of its own to raise the stakes. The six-party talks experience also underlines the difficulty of using sanctions as a negotiating tactic: North Korea used the revived six-party process to talk not about the nuclear issue, but about sanctions. And similarly Iran, rather than buckle, may be inclined instead to test Washington's diplomatic muscle.