Do we have the guts to enforce the new Iran sanctions?
Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama succeeded in pushing another Iran sanctions resolution through the U.N. Security Council. That resolution gives countries the right (but not the obligation) to inspect ships suspected of carrying military and nuclear items the Security Council has banned from Iran. On July 1, Obama signed into law H.R. 2194, a statute that will allow the president to impose sanctions on people or companies anywhere in the world who deal with Iran's petroleum exploration and refining businesses. H.R. 2194 was a very popular bill; it passed 408-8 in the House and 99-0 in the Senate.
Obama now has all the sanction authority he could have hoped for. But now that he has these powers, will he have the will to use them? Employing the new sanctions will require Obama and the United States to experience some unpleasant side effects. The next phase of the tussle with Iran could involve a global game of chicken, and it's not clear who will blink first.
On July 6, the Washington Post ran a story about Iran's preparations for a naval clash in response to the shi- inspection provision of the Security Council resolution. The article discussed Iran's "asymmetric" tactics against the U.S. 5th Fleet which could involve anti-ship missile attacks supplemented with suicide speedboat and aircraft attacks on U.S. warships near Iran. U.S. commanders, informed by war-games and training exercises, claim to be ready for these tactics.
A naval clash would seem to play to the U.S. military's strong suit. An Iranian attack would allow U.S. air and naval power to punish a broad range of Iranian military targets. The United States would seem to possess "escalation dominance" in this scenario.
But Iran's strategy would be primarily political, not military. Even one minor hit on a U.S. warship, one photograph of gray smoke coming from a U.S. hull, would exceed expectations and would be an Iranian moral victory. More importantly, Iran would hope to turn its losses into a propaganda victory -- an example of the U.S. bully beating up a small country. From an economic perspective, the Obama team would likely ponder the implications for the global economy of a naval battle in the Strait of Hormuz. For all these reasons, it might be in Iran's interest to arrange a provocation over the ship-inspection provision, engage the United States in a game of chicken, and see whether or not the Security Council resolution will have any meaning.
Iran is not the only one that can play chicken over this issue. China's oil companies will soon be the dominant foreign player in Iran's energy sector. H.R. 2194's sanctions will place these Chinese companies, and many other Chinese companies dealing with Iran, in Obama's gun sights. Will he be willing to pull the trigger and risk a possible trade war with China, thus imperiling his goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years? Or will Obama use the bill's opt-out provisions, which the president noted in his signing statement, and render the statute something of a dead letter?
Sanctioning Iran is not free; it will require taking risks and possibly incurring economic and even military losses. Iran, and perhaps China, might soon test Obama's appetite for further escalation.