Is the Sanctions Debate Justifying the Military Option?

This post originally appeared at

To an outsider, it may seem like Washington is united in favor of imposing new sanctions on Iran. But, like in Iran itself, the internal wrangling over this question among Washington policymakers is much more complex and divided by factions than one may assume.

Congressional leaders from both parties have long called for new sanctions — and, bolstered by the strong support of the pro-Israel lobby, even some Democrats have undermined the President’s engagement strategy in their zeal for a more heavy-handed approach. Now that the administration has moved past direct talks and embraced the pressure track, one would assume that Congress, the President and the rest of the Iran policymaking community is in harmony.

But they’re not. Not even close.

The President’s harshest critics, among them future presidential-hopeful Sarah Palin, disparage the administration’s push for sanctions as being too soft. They decry the shift away from “crippling” sanctions — which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously endorsed — to a more targeted approach of sanctions that “bite.” The administration is holding firm on its decision not to pursue a unilateral or “coalition of the willing” approach until the multilateral option has been tried within the UN Security Council. And yet, many Republicans who once pressed the administration to abandon diplomatic engagement in favor of new sanctions have now soured on Obama’s version of the pressure track.

Among both liberals and conservatives, there is little optimism that new sanctions will significantly alter the situation facing US-Iran relations.

This is due, in part, to the administration’s inability to clarify its reasons for pursuing sanctions in the first place. Originally, the incoming Obama administration laid out a strategy of diplomatic engagement, bolstered — if need be — by economic pressure. The core of this strategy remained face-to-face talks, and sanctions were depicted as a way to gain leverage at the negotiating table.

It was impossible, however, to anticipate the tectonic shift that took place in Iran after last June’s presidential election. Without warning, a powerful movement sprang up that challenged the very nature of Iran’s theocracy. That is when the rationale for the Administration’s sanctions push shifted. Officials began speaking of targeted sanctions having the potential to influence the “internal dynamics” inside Iran — providing a boost for the protest movement and possibly even bringing about regime change.

These two very divergent justifications for the Administration’s sanctions policy have never been fully reconciled, nor has there been any clarification about what the sanctions are actually supposed to accomplish.

This lack of strategic vision came even more clearly into view when the contents of a secret memo were leaked to the New York Times last week. Written by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the memo asserted that the Obama administration does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s continued development of its nuclear program despite western diplomatic efforts and sanctions.

Now, in the context of this strategic black hole, many in Washington are openly questioning the sanctions option, with conservatives turning sharply against President Obama’s sanctions plan.

Russia and China will never allow meaningful sanctions to be imposed, they argue, so the UN Security Council process is a waste of time. Similarly, unilateral sanctions — which have passed both houses of Congress and need only be combined for the President signature — are unlikely to alter Iran’s behavior. After all, Iran has long anticipated a US clampdown on refined petroleum imports, and has therefore put in place a number measures designed to inoculate itself against any sort of pressure the US and a few of its allies might impose.

Thus, no longer under the illusion that “crippling” sanctions will be a panacea, critics of Obama’s Iran policy are seeking to frame the issue as a choice between living with a nuclear Iran and taking military action to prevent it. Yet this framing deliberately eliminates the various other options the President has at his disposal, and it is intentionally designed to make the military option seem preferable.

The challenge now for the Obama administration will be to demonstrate that this dilemma is in fact a false choice. This is sure to be difficult, however, as Iran’s nuclear program continues to grow and in the absence of any breakthrough on the diplomatic front.

There is little doubt that the Obama administration views military options on Iran as a means only of last resort, but if conventional wisdom solidifies around this stark choice of either a nuclear-armed Iran or a military strike, President Obama is likely to find himself surrounded by members of both parties propagating the idea that all other options have, in fact, been exhausted.

Posted By Patrick Disney

    2 Responses to “Is the Sanctions Debate Justifying the Military Option?”

  1. Pirouz says:

    Cyrus Safdari alerted me to this piece yesterday, in

    This is a fine piece of work, Patrick. We definitely need more of this kind of thing, so that Americans can make informed decisions on Iran policy, and let their congressmen know they do not want another catastrophe like Iraq.

  2. Hasan says:

    War with Iran is justified. The regime is holding its citizens hostage and committing acts of aggression against other countries.

    The only way to rid middle-east of such hatred is cutting off the source, the Iranian regime.

    We have to overcome our love of the country in order to save it. Our desire for a peaceful end to this regime has not been fruitful for over 3 decades. How many more innocent people need to be killed by the regime for us to consider the longer term consequence of a peaceful solution to the Iranian problem?

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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