May 16, 2011

By Matt Duss

As President Obama prepares to speak to the country later this week about his policy in a rapidly changing Middle East, he comes with an obviously significant recent success: The death of Osama bin Laden. Probably less noticed, however, will be the recent news of an important administration success in its Iran policy.

In a just-released report, a special panel of United Nations experts declared that the multilateral sanctions adopted under a U.N. Security Council Resolution in June 2010—sanctions that the Obama administration worked hard to pass—are having a significant impact on Iran’s ability to proceed with its nuclear program. The new measures “are constraining Iran’s procurement of items related to prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile activity and thus slowing development of these programs,” the panel reported.

The sanctions, which include the freezing of assets and travel bans on specific regime members, have “clearly forced changes in the way in which Iran procures items” related to its nuclear program, according to the report. What’s more, the report also notes that “Member States are taking a more active role in the implementation process, strengthening export controls, and exercising vigilance through their financial and regulatory bodies, port and customs authorities.”

As with the creation in mid-March of a special U.N. human rights monitor in Iran, the report of the sanctions’ effectiveness is another vindication of the Obama administration’s decision to re-engage at the United Nations to address multilateral challenges through multilateral venues and tools. But the new report also represents a significant victory for President Obama’s engagement policy with the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama took criticism for his stated intention of talking to Iran “without preconditions” in an effort to achieve some mutually acceptable agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. Eventually, though, five former secretaries of state endorsed Obama’s position.

During the first presidential debate in September 2008, his opponent Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) criticized negotiation with Iran, saying it would “legitimize their illegal behavior.” Obama responded that “we’re [not] going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation with some countries like Russia and China that…have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon." Affirming his goal of “tough, direct diplomacy with Iran,” Obama acknowledged that that diplomacy “may not work, but if it doesn’t work, then we have strengthened our ability to form alliances to impose tough sanctions.”

This is precisely what Obama achieved.

Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar explained recently during a discussion at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem that “President Obama showed the world that this regime is not interested in reaching out to the West, by getting close to them.” Contrary to the charges of “appeasement” leveled by some conservative critics, Obama “called this regime’s bluff by recognizing it,” said Javedanfar. “This is the worst thing you can do to your enemy, to unmask them.”

Iran, of course, is hard at work to circumvent the sanctions, as the U.N. report also notes. This is why it’s imperative that the Obama administration maintain a strong international consensus in favor of those sanctions, and continues to work in multilateral venues to maintain and tighten their enforcement. It’s also why the president’s critics—having been proved wrong on the value of engaging Iran—needs to ease up on more aggressive measures that threaten to alienate our allies and break the strong multilateral resolve that Obama has so painstakingly forged.



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