At the end of August we were told that President George Bush wanted to treat the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “designated global terrorist” force, which would mark an escalation in the US-Iran crisis and have a number of important implications.
I spoke to a press officer in the State Department but he was cautious and had nothing to add; I was given the impression this was under study within the Bush administration but no decision had been made by the president.
On Oct. 25 President Bush imposed what The Times contended were:
“the harshest sanctions on Iran for a generation ... fuelling claims that he is preparing possible air strikes against Tehran.”
It made me wonder if this was partly a reaction to President Vladimir Putin’s careful but successful visit to Iran a few days ago, when he appeared to get on well with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and spoke out against the use of “any kind of force” against Iran. The Russian approach would have infuriated President Bush.
I detected a measure of irritation in the European Union’s reaction to America’s new sanctions. I am sure the European Union was notified in advance but I wonder how much discussion took place. Europeans will ask why now, why unilaterally, and if this is to fit in with an American timetable involving military action before President Bush leaves office in just over a year.
As under previous presidents, the United States has got into the habit of announcing sanctions against other countries, as and when it likes and involving minimum coordination with other members of the international family.
In November 1997 I happened to be in Khartoum when Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, announced “sweeping new sanctions” against the government of the Sudan.
The timing was crass. Peace talks were in progress in Nairobi in an attempt to end Sudan’s civil war. In practice, the United States had very little trade with the Sudan, other countries showed little or no interest in following the superpower’s example and the real effect of these “sweeping” sanctions was minimal.
In the case of the new sanctions on Iran the effect could be considerable. Commercial organizations based outside America have been warned that carrying on dealing with designated groups in Iran might put them at risk of suffering American financial penalties. While the benefit of their trade with Iran might be small, the loss of their trade with America could be huge.
All the signs coming out of Washington suggest the Bush administration is badly divided over Iran. Vice President Dick Cheney declared on Oct. 21 that there would be serious consequences if Iran did not halt its enrichment program. The American media believes the vice president is pushing his colleagues to go ahead with air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The neoconservatives hate the idea of passing on the problem of Iran to the next administration — presumably a Democratic Party one.
Meanwhile Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, seems anxious to keep to the long and slow diplomatic route so long as it has a chance of working. The State Department must have as a principle goal the widest possible support for economic sanctions against Iran hopefully within a Security Council framework, but if not a coalition of the Willing on sanctions. Dr. Rice will be watching the possible building up of a military consensus in America that strikes against Iran might not be successful — targets would be deep underground, perhaps under mountains, hardened against air attacks. Iran would respond with massive terrorist attacks against vulnerable American targets in the Middle East.
President Bush is responding to the recent behavior of the IRGC military wing, Al-Quds, which is blamed in Washington for both arming and training militant groups not only in Iraq but also Lebanon and Afghanistan. His new proposals will hit more than 20 Iranian organizations, including three state-run banks, the Defense Ministry and entities owned or controlled by the IRGC. The Americans are claiming — and it is worth remembering they have no embassy in Tehran — that the IRGC today has responsibility for vast areas of Iran’s international business interests, including obtaining nuclear technology.
Europe would like to work with the Americans, but is anxious to give support to the numerous moderate voices in Iran. Europe does not wish to be rushed by an American president whom many Europeans distrust.