WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday said he is unsure whether a recent wave of economic sanctions would ultimately succeed in stemming Iran's nuclear ambitions (see GSN, June 29).
"I don't know if all these different sanctions will work," Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said in reference to a spate of penalties adopted by the U.N. Security Council, the European Union and Congress.
Senate and House lawmakers last week overwhelmingly approved the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Sanction Act of 2010 (see GSN, June 25). The legislation would punish foreign firms that provide the Gulf nation with gasoline and other refined petroleum products or conduct business with certain Iranian banks.
The Security Council earlier this month passed a fourth round of sanctions against Tehran that would, among other measures, prohibit Iranian activity on ballistic missiles that could be topped with nuclear warheads (see GSN, June 9). The European Union also issued a fresh set of economic penalties against the Middle East country.
Iran insists that is nuclear program is strictly for civilian use and does not contain a military component, an assertion the United States and other world powers have treated with outright skepticism.
"I don't know whether [the latest sanctions will] work or not but what I do know is that before taking up any other options you have to open the opportunity for a diplomatic resolution," Berman said during an event on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Henry L. Stimson Center.
If that route proves unsuccessful, a diplomatic response could be combined with other measures -- such as additional penalties or possibly military intervention -- that would affect the thinking of the Iranian regime "to survive in a fashion that they want to survive in," he told the audience.
The California lawmaker's comments echoed those made in the last few days by senior members of the Obama administration.
Iran is not likely to be persuaded by the recent sanctions to give up its atomic aspirations, CIA Director Leon Panetta said Sunday. U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen offered a similar assessment the next day.
Panetta said the Gulf nation possessed enough low-enriched uranium to produce weapon-grade material for two nuclear weapons. Iran would need one year to finish the uranium enrichment process and another year to prepare delivery devices, he said.
Berman, an architect of the congressional sanctions legislation, said yesterday "just holding the specter" of that bill was helpful in moving the additional economic measures through the Security Council and the European Union. He did not say how it had contributed.
The legislation, which awaits President Barack Obama's signature, was about "a single country trying to impose multilateral sanctions by leveraging its market," not unilateral sanctions as some observers have said, according to Berman.
The almost "asthmatic response from pundits that sanctions don't work ... is said very easily because how often have really tough sanctions been tried?" he said.
"I've seen some instances where they worked and I've seen a lot of instances where they don't work," such as the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, Berman told the audience.
The chairman said he would not endorse the possibility of military action against Iran under the assumption that the latest sanctions against Tehran would fail.
However, a nuclear-armed Iran "has so many different game-changing features in terms of our interests, the region's interest, the nonproliferation regime generally that every option needs to be pursued in its right order," according to Berman.
One expert agreed with Berman's assessment that sanctions could fail to change Iran's behavior.
"It would be folly to expect that Iran would stop its uranium enrichment process due to sanctions passed by the Security Council and certainly not ones applied by the United States government or any other government," said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
People often forget that Tehran's nascent nuclear program is a strategic one intended to increase its global stature and is not designed to be a "bargaining chip" that could be traded away for something else, such as relief from sanctions, he said in an interview today.
Berman did not offer explanation for his doubts. However, they might be related to an ongoing debate within the Obama administration about whether all nations would adhere to newest sanctions. China alone has invested billions of dollars in the Gulf nation's energy sector, and is seemingly prepared to step in to conduct increased business with Tehran as other nations pull back.
"It's one thing for a U.S. legislator to support a sanctions drive when it looks like everyone's going to play by rules," Hibbs told Global Security Newswire. "It's another kettle of fish if it looks in a cut and dried way that the sanctions he's asking be imposed" would not have the expected impact.