When Sanctions Are Not Sanctions

As the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) goes around meeting with Members of Congress this week, they will be arguing for stronger sanctions against Iran. Their latest focus will be “sanctions” on refined petroleum products to Iran.

This option has taken on a life of its own in the past few weeks. Senator McCain proposed it during his speech to AIPAC, although he said he first raised it a year ago. Somewhat surprisingly, Senator Obama also joined the bandwagon. He suggested this was the kind of action he would support if Iran did not change its ways. On May 28 the mainstream media jumped on board when, in an editorial, the Wall Street Journal suggested the option.

All of this may be a prelude to a meeting between the President and Prime Minister Olmert. Israeli papers are reporting that at that meeting Olmert will say time is running out on Iran and more serious actions are need. According to the paper, he will propose a blockade.

On the surface the idea has an attraction. Gasoline has been a sensitive topic as prices top $4 a gallon across the nation. Iran imports around 50% of the refined petroleum products it uses. It seems like vulnerability. Pressure the people, and the government will be forced to terminate enrichment and stop support for terrorism.

I doubt that AIPAC and the presidential candidates know Iran might welcome a blockade because it would solve a problem the leadership has been unable to crack. Like many countries, Iran has subsidized gasoline prices for many years. Although there have been some price increases, the regime has not felt the people would tolerate paying market price. This “sanction” would open a window for the government to increase prices while blaming the great Satan.

Moreover the effect of such sanctions inside Iran might not produce the crippling response those at AIPAC desire. Iran previously dealt with the loss of large percentages of its refined petroleum products when Iraq bombed Iran’s refineries during the Iran/Iraq war? And in 2006 Iran on its own suspended imports of refined petroleum products. Rationing was imposed, and the country seemed to have gotten along just fine.

Iran has a huge hard currency reserve generated from high oil prices. Iran very well may be able to withstand a blockade of refined petroleum products longer that the U.S. economy could stand the spike in the price of oil if Iran stopped exporting crude oil.

But the impacts of the proposed sanctions would reverberate far beyond Iran.

Iraq imports electricity from Iran. According to an official, Iraq currently imports 470 megawatts per day and the Government of Iraq has reached an agreement to increase this by 300 megawatts. Beyond that, Iraq’s Electricity Minister is to accompany Maliki on this weekend’s visit to Tehran to request more electricity.

If petroleum sanctions were enacted Iran would most likely cut electricity exports to Iraq because 20% of its own electricity comes from burning refined petroleum products.

The UN does not do punishment sanctions. Although the Brits might support us, the United States would be on its own with this one. To effectively carry out these sanctions however, it would mean a naval blockage to prevent ships from carrying refined product into Iranian ports. At least the Wall Street Journal was open enough to mention that the “sanction” would require a naval blockade. And we should be clear–a blockade would be an act of war.

I wonder if AIPAC and Senators McCain and Obama know this?

If they do, it goes far beyond pandering to AIPAC. And if they don’t, they aren’t equipped with the ability to lead our nation as president.

Sam Gardiner is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and is a retired Air Force colonel who has taught military strategy and operations at the National War College, Air War College, and Naval War College.