Stuart Levey, the stalwart–Bush Administration holdover at Treasury who leads the American effort to impose crippling sanctions on Iran recently offered a highly upbeat assessment of the current state of play with the Tehran regime. Arguing that both the UN multilateral sanctions have begun to bite, as have American unilateral sanctions, Levey pointed out that the Iranian government is finding it increasingly difficult to conduct transactions in dollars or Euros, that its oil and gas sectors are hurting, and that major international firms, such as Toyota, Russia's Lukoil, Allianz and Shell, have cut back or completely eliminated their business in Iran.
Recent events certainly seem to underscore Levey's optimism. On September 22, in compliance with the sanctions approved by the UN Security Council on June 9, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree banning weapons sales to Iran—including missile systems that threatened to inhibit an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Over the weekend of September 24-26, the German steel conglomerate Thyssen Krupp announced that it would prohibit new business with Tehran. Turkey, one of Iran's staunchest defenders, nevertheless has cut back on its trade with its neighbor, and even China appears ready to go along with the UN approved sanctions regime.
Does all this mean that the sanctions will force a change in Iranian behavior sufficient to forestall an Israeli attack, or for that matter, one by the United States? President Obama certainly appears to think so. He has once again extended an offer to talk with Iran, and to mend relations, even as he presses for ever tougher sanctions that he seems to believe will force Iran to jettison its nuclear weapons program. That Iran has had to quell a resurgence of Kurdish unrest further seems to testify to the weakness of the regime and its ultimate need to come to terms with the West.
On the other hand, President Ahmadinejad was his usual defiant self at the UN, alleging that the United States and Israel were behind the 9/11 attacks. He did not sound like someone who felt cowed by the sanctions. But Ahmadinejad does not control foreign policy or national security; those portfolios remain in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There is no evidence that the Supreme Leader is prepared to do anything more than permit his diplomats to engage in yet another round of talks with the Western powers even as the nuclear program proceeds apace. Indeed, Khamenei may well view Obama's recurrent offers of both talks and improved relations as a sign of American weakness.
The sanctions therefore might be affecting Iran's economy, and its well-being but not necessarily its policies. Historically, sanctions have failed more often than they have succeeded. And even when they have succeeded, as in the case of the sanctions regime against South Africa's apartheid policy, they extend over many years, even decades, before they have an impact on the target nation's policies.
Iran's nuclear program does not require decades to become operational. It may not require more than a few years, if that long. That is why the Israelis continue to rattle their sabers, even while pressing for America to strike Iran on their behalf. A strike by either country would have terrible ramifications, but that does not mean that Israelis in particular will not undertake one anyway. Stuart Levey may indeed be doing a wonderful job—he has certainly got Iran's attention, being subjected to the usual ad hominem attacks that often pass for dialogue in Iran—but his optimism may still be premature. And that is a worrying prospect indeed.