Weak Tea

The U.N. sanctions against Iran have been watered down to almost nothing.

After a year's worth of diplomacy, the United Nations Security Council finally passed a fourth round of Iran sanctions on Wednesday. The vote passed easily, with 12 states voting in favor and only two, Brazil and Turkey, voting against the sanctions resolution. At various points in the previous months, Barack Obama's administration has promised that these sanctions will be "crippling," "smart," and "targeted." In reality, however, the best adjective to describe the new sanctions is "ineffective."

In May, the Obama administration announced an agreement on the language of a draft resolution between the veto-wielding members of the Security Council. The administration patted itself on the back for getting China and Russia to go along with another round of sanctions. However, the White House paid a huge price for their agreement: It agreed to water down the obligations in the resolution, making its most important restrictions voluntary. As a result, the resolution is not strong enough to change Iran's strategic calculation any more than the three resolutions that preceded it.

Even with these concessions, doubt remained up to the last minute over whether the resolution would be adopted. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rushed to announce the agreement before her negotiators had finished work on the annexes listing the names of the individuals and entities to be sanctioned. The quick announcement marked an attempt to manage the fallout from the nuclear-fuel swap negotiated by Turkey and Brazil, whereby Iran agreed to park 1,200 kilograms of its uranium stockpile in Turkey, while receiving in return a supply of enriched uranium ostensibly for use in its medical research reactor. China and Russia have reacted sympathetically to the terms of the deal, signaling their weak resolve to enforce the new U.N. sanctions despite their vote in favor of them.

The new draft resolution displays in the clearest possible terms the contrast between the administration's boundless faith in international institutions and reality. The White House considers it a major accomplishment that the resolution simply names the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), Iran's principal maritime shipping company. The resolution also includes entities acting on behalf of the IRGC and IRISL, as well as entities that are owned or controlled by them. However, it falls short of actually mandating international action against these entities.

The new sanctions will only require countries to block IRGC or IRISL assets if these entities are proven to be engaged in activities that are "proliferation sensitive." In other words, if a country does not catch them red-handed while shipping centrifuges to Iran, it does not have to act.

The same qualification applies to the financial-services sanctions, which include a prohibition on opening new banks, branches of Iranian banks, and correspondent relationships. The sanctions only apply if there are grounds to believe a specific financial transaction relates to proliferation-sensitive activities. The Central Bank of Iran is mentioned only in passing, and the resolution only "encourages" countries to exercise vigilance over its transactions.

The resolution does offer some encouraging developments, but they are unlikely to have sufficient impact to change Iranian behavior. The sanctions give countries the authority to interdict ships they believe are carrying prohibited nuclear items to Iran. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, imposed after North Korea's 2009 nuclear-weapons test, gave countries the authority to stop North Korean vessels, and some countries -- including India, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates -- have actually used it. However, this has obviously not stopped Kim Jong Il's nuclear program, which proceeds apace.

One of the resolution's few mandatory provisions requires countries to prohibit Tehran from acquiring an interest in commercial activity involving uranium mining, as well as production or use of nuclear materials and technology. Iran has been seeking to acquire uranium from Venezuela and Bolivia, which this resolution might affect. Prohibiting investment in a mine, however, will not stop Iran from buying the ore extracted from it.

The new resolution is also rife with loopholes when it comes to new arms restrictions. For example, it does not prohibit Russia from selling S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran because those weapons are not covered by the resolution's technical definition of a missile listed on the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. Administration officials have said they have reached a separate understanding with the Russians, but there are no sanctions ready to go if they supply the S-300s anyway.

The voluntary nature of many of these sanctions guarantees that states will implement them in widely varying ways. The United States will likely use the resolution to expand its array of unilateral sanctions and enforce sanctions on Iranian financial transactions and shipping even more vigorously. EU member states will also strengthen their measures, but will not independently impose sanctions on new targets. Although they will be more aggressive in interdicting shipments, we are not likely to see Britain or France prohibiting the Iranian business of European oil companies such as Total and Shell. Russia and China, on the other hand, will probably parse the resolution's language to its barest essentials, doing the minimum necessary to meet its requirements. This will allow Russian energy giant Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corp. to continue their Iran projects as usual.

Although the paltry effect of the new U.N. sanctions might not have much of an impact on Iran, it could spur the U.S. Congress to implement unilateral sanctions on Iran's petroleum exports, which the Security Council's resolution does not address. Congressional sanctions probably will not change Iran's strategic calculation either, but supporters can plausibly argue that they could choke off the money that pays for Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that oil sales comprise as much as 76 percent of the regime's revenues.

Of course, the new resolution is better than nothing. There should be no illusion, however, that it will stop Iran's drive toward nuclear weapons. U.N. sanctions will need to be a lot tougher to have an impact on the Islamic Republic, if it is not already too late for them to have any impact at all.



Crazy Like a Fox

In a fit of anger, Hamid Karzai axes his director of intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. But is there method to his madness?

The puzzling resignation on June 6 of President Hamid Karzai's two security chiefs -- Amrullah Saleh, the director of intelligence, and Hanif Atmar, the interior minister -- has left many Afghan hands wondering about what was behind their brusque departure.

The ostensible cause for their resignation is that Karzai was furious that the Taliban were able to fire rockets inside the peace jirga last week where he and 1,600 delegates were meeting to discuss negotiations with the Taliban. In the aftermath, he took Saleh and Atmar to task, but was apparently dissatisfied with their explanations for how this happened. By all accounts, the meetings were volatile and everyone left angry. At his news conference announcing his resignation, Saleh hinted that there were other reasons for his leaving.

Yesterday, I received a letter from a well-placed Afghan insider that sheds some new light on the bizarre series of events that led to Saleh and Atmar's departure:

"You are not going to believe this but Karzai believes that ISAF [NATO] was trying to scare or warn him by lobbing rockets at the Jirga tent on June 2. He believes that once ISAF was assured of him not making an anti-Western statement the rocketing stopped.  He then went on to accuse his two security chiefs (Amrullah Saleh and Hanif Attmar) of colluding with ISAF.  

Amrullah rejected this outright arguing that if they wanted to get Karzai they would not have used an old rocket! He also declared that he could no longer work for him (the President).

He then walked out and resigned in a press conference later in the afternoon. Atmar followed suit an hour later.

A number of issues you need to bear in mind:

The Pakistani's second condition (following the closure of the Indian consulates) was the removal of Amrullah Saleh as Intel Chief (whom they saw as anti-Pakistani).

Amrullah's removal will have regional implications given his thorough understanding of both Afghanistan and the region (Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran). He was very, very efficient and probably one of the most intelligent individuals I have come across (with a photographic memory). More importantly for the government, he delivered.

Within the NDS (National Directorate of Security) he was seen as fair, charismatic, honest and hardworking -- someone who despised nepotism and nationalism (ethnic). He also led from the front and did not shy away from speaking his mind both publicly and privately (with the President).

I believe that his loss will be a tremendous blow to Afghanistan not just vis a vis terrorism but also in relation to crime (theft, kidnappings) and corruption (where he played an important role albeit one that was ignored more often than not by the President).

Security will be a major challenge for both the Kabul Conference (later this month) and September's elections (campaigning is due to commence within weeks). How the hell will the government deal with this challenge?"

The loss of Atmar and Saleh will certainly be felt in the coming months. But what this letter really offers is perhaps the best, recent insight into Karzai's increasingly puzzling behavior.

In 2009, I published a profile of President Hamid Karzai in the New York Times Magazine called "Karzai in His Labyrinth." The title said it all. Although Karzai may have entered office as a charismatic, able politician, over the last few years he has grown more and more isolated, suspicious, and paranoid vis-à-vis the United States, Pakistan, and Britain. He is constantly accusing his ministers of treachery and berating them in public. Several times of late, he has turned on Saleh and accused him of conspiring against him. The Taliban rocket attacks on the peace jirga were evidently the final straw.

Saleh belongs to the Tajik ethnic group and was close to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik Northern Alliance leader assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001. This affiliation has unnerved Karzai, who since 2005 has been convinced that an array of Northern Alliance power brokers are out to unseat him. In 2007, he turned on his chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, and his then minister of education, Hanif Atmar, accusing both men of plotting against him and of being British agents. They both resigned. Karzai apologized the next day, but the damage was done. Ludin went off as ambassador to the Nordic countries and now Canada. Karzai and Atmar did not speak for months, but eventually Karzai agreed to bring him on as interior minister -- under heavy encouragement from the West.

Many have accused Karzai of being mad or paranoid when he lashes out and threatens to join the Taliban or when he pulls his crazy face and loses his temper. But it is worth remembering that the mad act has its benefits. It gets him what he wants without him having to take full responsibility for his actions. And, with the U.S. talk of pulling out next summer, Karzai is planning for his future, a future that will inevitably depend on good relations with Pakistan and the Taliban.