Politicians in both parties talk a tough game on Iran sanctions, but their toughness quickly evaporates when sanctions collide with corporate profits – as they inevitably do.
That was one of the subtexts in Saturday's New York Times story, which revealed that the “federal government has awarded more than $107 billion in contract payments, grants and other benefits over the past decade to foreign and multinational American companies while they were doing business in Iran, despite Washington’s efforts to discourage investment there.”
That includes, the Times went on, “nearly $15 billion paid to companies that defied American sanctions laws by making large investments that helped Iran develop its vast oil and gas reserves.”
Both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations supported sanctions but didn't work too hard to enforce them when it came to American companies, the Times reported – undercutting their security goals in the interests of profits.
The American Jewish Committee seemed surprised; AJC director David Harris, in a statement on Sunday, said that “Most disturbing is the revelation by the Times that our own government has never enforced the Iran Sanctions Act. If the United States is going to legitimately lead the global effort to stop Iran’s menacing march to achieve nuclear-weapons capability, then we need to be true to ourselves.”
Well, right. In theory.
But in practice, it's a lot harder when there's big money in play, which is the problem in applying sanctions to a country like Iran, which has a resource everybody else wants.
Making sanctions really bite means countries that are in fierce economic competition with each other must agree to forgo the big profits to be made in trade with Iran, which, according to a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, holds the world's second biggest oil and gas reserves.
Is it reasonable to think we'll be able to influence the economic behavior of Russia and China, among others, when we're not really willing to crack down on our own companies if it means hurting profits?
Doesn't that suggest much of the Iran huffing and puffing in Congress is just that - posturing for political consumption? Doesn't it mean presidents from both parties believe Iran is a danger, but not enough of a danger to risk offending big money interests or to put the slightest crimp in the U.S. economy?
And what about the lawmakers who leap at the chance to pass sanctions laws and thunder about the Iran nuclear danger, but suddenly go mute when it comes to saying no to their big-money friends and campaign contributors?
That's the weakness of sanctions: they require self-sacrifice that few nations are willing to accept. Including, apparently, our own.
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