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New US Sanctions on Iran

The United States announced sweeping new sanctions on Iran last week. They designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and its elite Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism in the Middle East. They also include measures aimed at isolating three Iranian-state-owned banks and more than 20 Iranian individuals and companies.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and is designed to produce nuclear power. However, the United States and its allies, especially Britain and France, accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon. And President Bush recently suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to World War III. On the other hand, Russia and China continue to oppose Washington’s calls for tougher sanctions on Iran.

Israel has grown increasingly alarmed about Iran’s nuclear program since late 2005, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe the Jewish state “off the map.” So Nathan Gutmann, Washington correspondent for The Forward, says that Israelis welcome the fact that Washington went forward with what he calls “ground-breaking sanctions.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Gutmann says that Israel is now stressing that the most important avenue to pursue is that of “sanctions and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.” He says Israel would like to see the world focus on making sure that Iran is seen not as an Israeli problem but rather as a “global” problem.

Meanwhile Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says Iran does not currently have the know-how to make a nuclear weapon and that diplomacy is the only solution. Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung agrees, calling the U.S. position “harsh.” He notes that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has strongly criticized the tougher sanctions imposed by the United States. Mr. Rueb says the rift within the European Union over Iran is getting deeper. Britain and France would go along with Washington in imposing sanctions, whereas Germany opposes unilateral sanctions. Germany – like China – is a major trading partner with Iran. And, according to Mr. Rueb, Berlin questions whether sanctions can be “effective” when the price of oil has climbed to more than $90 a barrel.

Nonetheless, Nathan Gutmann retorts that Israelis tend to think that the Iranian nuclear threat is “much more immediate” than most people believe and thus warrants U.S. sanctions. Mr. Gutmann stresses that the current situation in Iran is “totally different” from that of Osirak in Iraq, where “you can send warplanes and bomb the site and solve the Iraqi nuclear problem for years to come.” In Iran, he explains, nuclear facilities are “spread out around the country, hidden under the ground,” and mixed in with the civilian population.

Iranian journalist Ali-Reza Nourizadeh, who directs the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London, observes that prior sanctions on Iran have been far more effective than Tehran acknowledges. But he says Iran has “no intention” of giving up its nuclear program, even if it should lead to the brink of war. The main question is: What price is Iran willing to pay for keeping its nuclear program? According to Mr. Nourizadeh, the government is under pressure from reformers and, if they do well in the parliamentary elections 5 months from now, he thinks armed conflict can be avoided. On the other hand, if the Revolutionary Guards gain total control of the parliament and if Iran’s “provocative behavior in Iraq” continues, Mr. Nourizadeh says he thinks the possibility of some sort of U.S. military response will increase. However, the U.S. State Department calls conflict with Iran neither “inevitable” nor “desirable.”