Whatever happened to the crippling sanctions against Iran that the Obama administration swore would come after engagement and the EU said it would support?
Despite repeated statements by European leaders and US officials that the time has come for a new round of sanctions, it is hard to believe that anything meaningful will emerge from the latest diplomatic flurry. When it comes to Iran, experience offers virtually no examples of sanctions that "bite" as President Obama called them or "crippling" as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labelled them. Nobody in Iran is going to be crippled or bitten soon — except perhaps regime opponents, but that's not because of sanctions.
In short, sanctions, even limited ones, are a long way off. There is no comfort in knowing that EU ministers are "talking about it" or that President Obama expects them "in weeks, not months".
One needs only to look at the past two years to understand why, rhetoric aside, nobody is displaying any sense of urgency. The last time sanctions were approved was in March 2008, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1803. Since then, there has been an endless stream of sensible reasons to postpone the adoption of new measures. First, there was hope of a new UN resolution — but all that the UN could do was to reaffirm previous decisions, by passing Resolution 1835 in September 2008.
Then there was a US presidential election. With America distracted and its foreign policy uncertain, Iran was not interested in dialogue and the EU — whose appetite for sanctions was never really strong — was not willing to add new ones for fear of going against future US foreign policy.
Once President Obama took office, there was a lengthy policy review, so Europe didn't jump the gun. There was no point, too, in Obama speaking of sanctions while he was trying to engage Iran.
By the time engagement began, there were looming Iranian elections with which nobody wished to interfere. European diplomats noted that sanctions would strengthen the radicals inside Iran, giving them a pretext to distract public opinion from Tehran's economic turmoil. It would be better to wait.