The Fourth Round of Sanctions on Iran

Written by Emily B. Landau and Ephraim Asculai


Iran-nuclear-graphicsOn June 9, 2010, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1929, imposing a fourth round of sanctions on Iran. Twelve members of the Security Council voted in favor; Brazil and Turkey, as expected, opposed the decision; and Lebanon abstained. In the words of the resolution, the Security Council noted "with concern" that "Iran has not established full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and heavy water-related projects as set out in resolutions 1696 (2006), 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007) and 1803 (2008) nor resumed its cooperation with the IAEA under the Additional Protocol."

The council thus recognized the failure of all previous efforts, including three previous rounds of sanctions, to get Iran to halt its nuclear weapons development project and cooperate fully with the IAEA.

The new resolution goes further than the previous three rounds of sanctions in terms of the steps that will be taken against Iran. It imposes new restrictions on Iran's import of conventional arms and bans all activities related to ballistic missiles that could carry a nuclear weapon. It imposes a framework for inspecting the suspicious cargo of ships and aircraft to try to block Iran's illicit smuggling activities. It increases the pressure on banks to sever ties with companies related to Iran's nuclear program, and expands the list of individuals and entities whose assets will be frozen. Finally, amid conflicting reports on the issue, if Russia does finally state firmly that the resolution precludes its supply of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, this would be an important side benefit of the resolution, albeit with negligible effect on the nuclear program itself.

Still, the resolution falls seriously short of what the Obama administration had hoped for. China and Russia had to be assured that their economic ties with Iran would not be impaired. A major concession made by the US to both states in order to secure their agreement to the fourth round of sanctions was the omission of any steps that would target Iran's energy sector. Moreover, while the resolution establishes a UN panel of experts to help enforce the implementation of the sanctions, there are potential problems of implementation worked into some of the provisions themselves. For example, a state's ability to interdict ships with suspicious cargo is impaired if the "flag state" (the country whose flag is flown on the ship) must consent to the search. Obviously, this could pose difficulties if the flag belongs to a non-cooperative state.

The Obama administration has played up the fact that the current sanctions resolution is proof of its successful foreign policy toward Russia and China, and its ability to secure their cooperation on the new set of penalties. But should this be regarded as a major foreign policy success? Against the backdrop of the rapidly mounting evidence of an Iranian smoking gun in the nuclear realm, it is not clear why Russian and Chinese cooperation is considered so remarkable,, or why it is accepted that these two states cannot be expected to display an independent and responsible position towards Iran's ongoing non-compliance in the nuclear realm without being prodded by the US. Moreover, the Bush administration proved capable of securing their support for three separate rounds of sanctions from 2006 to 2008, when the evidence of where Iran was headed in the nuclear realm was far less obvious. As such, while gaining international agreement to adopt a harsh stance on Iran should be easier today than several years ago - especially after Obama's failed outreach to Iran - the Obama administration would have us believe that this is not the case.

The real test of all resolutions on sanctions is what comes in the wake of the decision. In this case, expectations are that the US and additional like-minded states - Canada and some European states - will use the Security Council resolution as a platform for deciding on additional unilateral sanctions that have more "bite." But in a post-resolution report, the Los Angeles Times noted on June 11 that "the Obama administration, which labored for months to impose tough new United Nations sanctions against Iran, now is pushing in the opposite direction against Congress as it crafts U.S. sanctions that the White House fears may go too far." The reasons the daily gives for this seemingly incomprehensible fact is that that the legislation could damage relations with Europe, Russia, and China. So while Congress wants to punish companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran or help the country's oil industry, the administration wants to give President Obama the power to waive these sanctions. Among all sanctions proposals, hitting the petroleum industry is the one that could hurt Iran most. A prohibition of sales of refined products to Iran, while permitting Iran to sell its crude oil, could be a median course that would be still effective, while not disturbing the world's oil market.

Moreover, in recognition of the fact that ultimately the question is whether sanctions are able to persuade Iran to adopt a more serious attitude in subsequent negotiations, Obama has noted that the door is still open to diplomacy. But for such diplomacy to have a chance of actually succeeding, the US needs to carve out an effective negotiations strategy, accompanied by strong multilateral and unilateral sanctions, and there is still no indication that it has done so. If the administration did work out such a strategy, this would be a true foreign policy success for the US.

Sanctions outside the framework of a broad strategy for confronting Iran will be useless, no matter how much they hurt. Absent a carefully planned strategy that places sanctions in an overall framework for confronting Iran, it is doubtful that the latest round of sanctions will fare better than its predecessors. Although hard to predict, this may have been the last round of UN sanctions in the current format. Further repeated calls (in the preambular paragraphs of the resolutions) for suspension of the enrichment program and renewed cooperation with the IAEA seem highly unlikely. Any additional resolution would have to be an action resolution. In today's world it is difficult to envision agreement on this.


The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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