As the UN Security Council imposes new sanctions aimed at halting Iran's nuclear ambitions, evidence suggests that previously set restrictions are failing to stop Iran from pursuing its goals.
The UN sanctions will hit Iran's nuclear and military industries
The United Nations Security Council voted 12-2 on Wednesday to impose additional sanctions on Iran. The decision came after representatives from the United States, France and Russia raised their concerns about a plan to allow Tehran to send some of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for reactor fuel for a medical research reactor.
That deal was brokered by Turkey and Brazil last month - both countries on Wednesday voted against the sanctions, while Lebanon abstained.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the new round of sanctions. "Again and again and over a long period of time we gave Iran the opportunity to be transparent, including with the international atomic agency. Iran did not accept these offers and therefore this resolution was needed," she said. Merkel added that the measures were not directed against the people of Iran but instead targeted the regime and its nuclear program.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said "a diplomatic solution remains our goal," and that "the door for cooperation and transparency is still open."
The reinforced international restrictions on Iran's military and nuclear industries add as many as 41 businesses to the UN blacklist and heavily curtail the operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
The new UN sanctions aim to undermine Iran's nuclear program and its perceived pursuit of atomic weapons – the West's main concern – while also attempting to cripple Tehran's ability to develop missile technology by slapping an embargo on heavy weapons sales and pushing for ship inspections.
As well as blacklisting industrial companies, many of which have military contracts or ties to the nuclear industry, the sanctions target companies linked to the Revolutionary Guards, the military power many believe to hold enormous sway over the running of Iran.
The UN hopes these sanctions will have more effect on Iran
UN-imposed travel bans on 40 officials already blacklisted will be strengthened. The head of the contested Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center, Javad Rahiqi, was added to those singled out for asset freezes and travel restrictions.
"The major goal of implementing these sanctions is to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear weapons development program and come to the negotiation table with the international community," Dr. Diana Gregor, a Middle East expert at the Realite-EU think-tank, told Deutsche Welle.
"Sanctions are a measure of pressure and therefore inevitable. If they are followed and accompanied with negotiations, this represents the ideal situation but we are far from being there."
Four rounds of sanctions yield few concrete results
While the new sanctions may represent a hardening of the UN Security Council's stance and provide yet further evidence of the diminishing patience of the international community, there is a growing consensus that this new round of sanctions – the fourth imposed on Iran since 2006 – will prove just as futile as previous attempts to force Tehran back into negotiations.
Despite continued efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program, the Islamic Republic is currently enriching uranium at levels higher than ever, while building new centrifuges to create larger stockpiles. Sanctions targeting banking institutions and businesses have had little effect on an economy which continues to boom.
Dr. Mehrdad Khonsari, a senior research consultant at the London-based Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies, believes that the unsubstantial nature of UN sanctions and the ease with which Iran defies them may lead to a situation where the West's patience finally runs out.
"These sanctions are of insufficient weight to change Iran's attitude and stance," he told Deutsche Welle. "However, more useless sanctions may be even more dangerous for Iran. As long as this pattern continues without any resolution, the longer the door remains open to some form of military action, which would be the worst case scenario."
Tehran has defied restrictions to bring technology to Iran
Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert and the director of the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis think-tank, believes that previous sanctions have had an effect on Iran but not enough to stop its nuclear pursuit.
"The sanctions have definitely made it more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear program and as such the program is not as advanced as the Iranian government claims it to be or would like it to be," he told Deutsche Welle. "But the sanctions have not stopped the program, only made it more expensive."
"They have also had an impact on the economy but only in the way that it has made it harder for Iran to buy products and the fact that Iran is forced to deal with middlemen in many aspects has pushed the prices up. They can no longer buy some things at market price."
Shipping deception keeps Iranian programs afloat
Existing restrictions on export and import practices have also proved to be ineffective as Iran has developed a complex system of deceptions to circumvent UN sanctions, a system which is expected to continue under the new restrictions on heavy arms sales.
In a report published by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, it was revealed how The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (Irisl), the state shipping company linked closely to the Revolutionary Guards, has been evading UN embargos on trade by renaming its ships and setting up front companies to hide the vessels' true origins.
Iran needs external help to pursue its military goals
Even though Irisl was put on a US blacklist in 2008 after it was suspected of involvement in the illegal shipping of supplies for Iran's nuclear program, the report suggests that 73 of its 119 ships still carry out operations which defy UN sanctions under false ownership or under the control of suspected front companies.
"Iran has been using shell companies to get around these sanctions for some time," Meir Javedanfar said. "The Iranians have been closely working with Venezuela in that respect. Venezuela is a very important part of this process. Iran also has a network of middlemen who buy parts for the nuclear program on its behalf, as was revealed when two men were arrested recently for doing this."
Sanctions will bite but Iran will endure
Javedanfar believes that while the new round of sanctions will make it harder for Iran to continue circumventing UN restrictions, it won't stop it.
"The new inspections, especially in regard to the sanctions on heavy weapons sales, will make it very hard for Iran," he said. "Iran has no capability of its own to make these kinds of weapons and with the eyes of the international community on it and the focus of intelligence agencies trained on it, suppliers from countries such as Russia and China will be less eager to do business with Iran."
While Iran may still find ways to get the materials and technology it needs to pursue its goals, many experts believe that increased sanctions may eventually bring Tehran to the negotiating table. However, it may take some time - and some wonder how long the West will continue to wait for results.
"It's up to the Iranian government to decide," said Meir Javedanfar. "It can survive many more rounds of sanctions before the cost to the Iranian population forces its hand. Until then, these sanctions will continue to send out the important message that Iran is increasingly isolated and that the international community does not trust it. That, in itself, may eventually have an effect."
Dr. Sami Alfaraj, president of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies and an expert on nuclear proliferation and Gulf affairs, believes that Iran may even turn these new sanctions to their own advantage.
"Iran will continue to play tough even as the sanctions hit and the regime will be eager to show that the international community is against it in the hope that opponents to the sanctions will join with Iran in the coming months," he told Deutsche Welle.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Andreas Illmer