U.S. and European oil and financial sanctions are imposing hardships on the Iranian public, driving up the cost of living, causing shortages of medicine and meat, and fueling popular resentment against the West, Iran’s top economic official told reporters today.
But the official, Iran’s Minister of Economy and Finance Seyed Shamseddin Hoseini, told reporters at the Iranian mission to the United Nations today the long-term impact of the sanctions would be to make Iran’s economy more self-reliant, and that Tehran would never bow to U.S. and European pressure to halt its nuclear program.
Addressing Western reporters at a breakfast of fruit, fried eggs, walnuts, and croissants, Hoseini said that U.S.-backed sanctions targeting the Iranian Central Bank have made it impossible to transfer funds to companies selling even the most basic goods to Iran. For instance, he said, foreign farmers seeking to export beef to Iran have been unable to secure money transfers to conclude the sale.
“So, as a result, our people are consuming a little bit less meat,” he said. “If you were in the shoes of the average Iranian how would you judge the current situation? What, there is no [difference] between a nuclear installation and beef?”
U.S. and European diplomats say that while international sanctions are designed to impede the government’s ability to develop nuclear weapons they acknowledge that some of the measures imposed on Iran’s oil and financial sector may inadvertently harm ordinary citizens.
But they say that they have exempted basic foods and humanitarian goods, including medicines, from a list of sanctioned goods. Tehran, they contend, bears the greatest responsibility for the plight of the Iranian people because it has repeatedly failed to abide by multiple Security Council resolutions demanding it freeze its uranium enrichment program.
Iran maintains that it has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon, and that the program is for peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity. It has argued that the West’s exemption on the import of medicines and humanitarian goods is meaningless given the refusal of international suppliers to transfer funds to Iranian banks and business out of fear they may be violating U.S. or European financial sanctions.
Hoseini claimed that the true objective of Washington and other European powers was not simply to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, but to prevent it from competing with them in the wider sciences, including aerospace industries, nanotechnology, and the nuclear sciences.
“We believe that the nuclear issue is not the central reason behind these sanctions; this is only a cover,” he said. “These are forbidden frontiers for us to cross into.” Only the big powers and their friends, he added, have “permission to cross that threshold.”
Iran “will continue our scientific progress and programs,” Hoseini said. In the meantime, the Iranian government is exploring ways to endure the sanctions, including providing rations to Iranian citizens and trying to cultivate new trade partners beyond. “Realism forces you to find new ways to get creative,” he said.
“We were continuing on a path and they created obstacles on our path,” he said. But “we will never stop behind the obstacles they put in our path.”
Despite the challenges, Hoseini said that Iran is coping.
“Don’t think for a moment now … there are no pharmaceuticals or medicines in Iran. Do not think that hospitals are unable to perform their daily health care operations or perform needed surgeries.”
Asked to comment on reports that the sanctions were crippling Iranians, doubling the price of basic staples like meat in the past month, he acknowledged that prices of “foodstuffs have increased across the board.” But, he added, “Of course, I don’t know which butcher shop you use in Iran because I have not heard prices of meat having doubled during the past month. They must have given you a raw deal.”
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Senator Ben Cardin, (D-MD), added his voice to those questioning Chuck Hagel's fitness for the job as defense secretary, faulting his former Senate colleague's preference for U.N. sanctions against Iran over U.S. bilateral measures.
Interviewed on MSNBC on Tuesday, Cardin took issue with Hagel's contention that it is wiser to pursue U.N. sanctions to compel Iran to curtail its nuclear ambitions than to impose unilateral U.S. sanctions.
"I have not supported unilateral sanctions because, when it is us alone, they don't work and they just isolate the United States," Hagel told his hometown paper, The Journal Star on Monday. "United Nations sanctions are working."
Cardin countered that the United States is "looked upon internationally as the leader and we have a responsibility to lead on sanctions." In a sense, Cardin and Hagel are both partly right. U.N. sanctions are having an impact on Iran's ability to do business. But they would not have nearly the same sting if they were not reinforced by a patchwork of U.S. and European measures that target Tehran's financial system and oil industry.
But Cardin used a curious example to make his case. In his interview, Cardin claimed that U.S. leadership on sanctions against South Africa in the era of white rule had helped bring about an end to Apartheid.
"If the United States would waited for the international community we dare say ... [it] ... would have been a lot longer before it ended its Apartheid state," Cardin said. "The United States showed leadership, the rest of the world followed."
Not so fast, Mr. Senator. The U.S. position on sanctions varied since 1948, when South Africa's nationalist party came to power adopting a raft of laws that codified the country's apartheid system that relegated the country's black to second class citizens. But it could hardly be viewed as leading the cause.
The first stirring of unease about South Africa's discriminatory policies emerged in 1946, even before the nationalists came into office, when India asked that the country's discrimination of ethnic Indians be placed on the agenda for discussion during the first session of the U.N. General Assembly.
The U.S. position dating back to the 1960s could be best described as highly ambivalent -- if not outright hostile to sanctions. Washington backed a 1960 Security Council resolution deploring the South African police's killing of 69 unarmed protesters in Sharpesville. And the John F. Kennedy administration backed a voluntary arms embargo. But U.S. administrations dating back to the 1960s opposed calls by developing nations, including African governments, for a mandatory arms embargo and economic sanctions.
In October 1962, a senior U.S. diplomat at the U.N., Francis Plimpton, vowed to "continue to oppose" the imposition of U.N. sanctions on South Africa, dismissing them as ineffective, according to a useful chronology published by The Peterson Institute for International Economics.
On August 7, 1963, the United States voted in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution recommending states cease the shipment of arms to South Africa, and Washington decided to end U.S. military sales. But days before the vote, Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued against making them mandatory. "The application of sanctions in this situation is not likely to bring about the practical result that we seek," Stevenson said at the time. "Punitive measures would only provoke intransigence and harden the existing situation..."
It would be another 14 years -- in response to the violent repression that followed the Soweto riots -- until the United States under President Jimmy Carter backed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. The U.S. cut off exports of any items to South Africa as there was reason to believe it would be used by the military. But the United States and its European allies still resisted U.N. General Assembly calls for an oil embargo on South Africa.
U.S. opposition to sanctions resurfaced following President Ronald Reagan's presidential election. Reagan's assistant secretary of state, Chester "Chet" Crocker, inaugurated the policy of "constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime, relaxing trade restrictions on the South African military. But as the Reagan administration sought to bolster relations with the South African government, civil society groups in the United States and abroad began to mobilize economic and political pressure on the Pretoria. "The international economic actions against South Africa that were most damaging were taken by private actors, not governments," Philip Levy argued in this 1999 paper.
As for Iran, Cardin said he still needs to understand why Hagel would be willing to forgo the imposition of unilateral sanctions on Iran when the international community could be expected to follow our lead if we did. "These are questions I think as a senator I have a responsibility to get his answer before making a decision on whether to support his confirmations," he said.
Fair enough. But the assumption that the world will follow is far from proven. Russia and China have made it clear they would block any new U.N. sanctions resolutions that targeted Iran's economy. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to fairly assign credit for the success or failures of sanctions in South Africa or Iraq. But it would help to have a reasonably clear-headed account of the facts.
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Israeli officials have long expressed deep skepticism about the impact of international sanctions alone in compelling Iran's leadership to abandon what it sees as its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, told a group of reporters on Friday at the Israeli mission to the United Nations, that he believes Tehran is as committed as ever to a nuclear weapon.
But he also credited international sanctions, particularly a set of financial measures imposed by the United States and the European Union, with exacting a steep enough price that it may force Tehran to change its behavior. Prosor cited a recent decision by the Belgium-based Society of World Wide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or Swift, blocking dozens of Iranian firms from doing business as the latest evidence the sanctions are having an impact.
"I think the international community at this stage has really moved forward and have made at least clear to Tehran that there is a certain price tag for continuing" its pursuit of nuclear weapons, he said. "The decision on SWIFT, the issue of the sanctions by the EU, are important and have an effect on Iran...I do see really a movement on the international stage, especially on the economic side...It's much more effective than people think and it might change, hopefully it might change behavior patterns if we continue with it."
Prosor made the remarks at a press breakfast with more than a dozen international reporters at the Israeli mission, providing a hint that Israel may be stepping away from its campaign to rally support for military strikes against Iran. He also used the meeting to underscore anti-Israeli bias at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and highlight the need for humanitarian assistance in Syria.
Asked to comment on a recent report in Foreign Policy that Israel had reached an agreement with Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, to use its airbases in the event of a possible air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. "I'm happy to say I don't know. That happens to me once in while but the answer is I just don't know. I just don't know,"
Prosor said that his government's chief priority in neighboring Syria, where a government crackdown on protesters entered its second year, "is to focus on anything that could be done in order to relieve and help on the humanitarian side these people in Syria who are being slaughtered." But Prosor declined to respond to a question on what kind of government Israel would prefer to see in Syria.
"Israeli politicians don't say anything on Syria and it is nor coincidental that they don't speak," he said. "Anything we would say on this will be used and abused against the people that I think we want to help. Having said that...I want to formally say clearly here that Bashar Assad does not have the moral authority to lead his people."
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UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.