THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION pledged that Iran would suffer painful consequences for plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and for refusing to freeze its nuclear program. Key European allies and Congress — not to mention Israel — are ready for decisive action. But on Monday the administration unveiled another series of half-steps. Sanctions were toughened on Iran’s oil industry, but there was no move to block its exports. The Iranian banking system was designated “a primary money laundering concern,” a step U.S. officials said could prompt banks and companies around the world to cease doing business with the country. But the administration declined to directly sanction the central bank.
The result is that President Obama is not even leading from behind on Iran; he is simply behind. At the forefront of the Western effort to pressure Tehran is French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who issued a statement Monday calling on the European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada and “other willing countries” to “immediately freeze the assets of Iran’s central bank” and suspend purchases of Iranian oil. France rejects the Obama administration’s view that these steps would cause a counterproductive spike in oil prices. In any case, higher oil prices are preferable to allowing an Iranian bomb — or having to take military action to stop it.
Congress is ahead of Mr. Obama, too. It’s likely that large bipartisan majorities will support legislation mandating sanctions against the central bank; in the Senate’s case it could be attached to the defense authorization bill. Another comprehensive sanctions bill, targeting both Iran and its ally Syria, could be brought to the Senate floor within a couple of weeks.
The administration’s slowness to embrace crippling sanctions is one of several persistent flaws in its Iran policy. Another is its continued insistence on the possibility of “engagement” with a regime that has repeatedly rejected it while plotting murder in Washington. “The United States is committed to engagement,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asserted Monday. Some European officials say they are concerned by the concessions the administration appears prepared to offer Tehran if there are new talks.
By now it should be obvious that only regime change will stop the Iranian nuclear program. That means, at a minimum, the departure of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has repeatedly blocked efforts by other Iranian leaders to talk to the West. Sanctions that stop Iran from exporting oil and importing gasoline could deal a decisive blow to his dictatorship, which already faced an Arab Spring-like popular revolt two years ago. By holding back on such measures, the Obama administration merely makes it more likely that drastic action, such as a military attack, eventually will be taken by Israel, or forced on the United States.