The False Promise of “Targeted” Sanctions

Despite his bellicose rhetoric, George W. Bush would very much like to avoid a choice between air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites and accepting a nuclear Iran. For the moment, administration officials are hoping that “targeted” sanctions aimed directly at Iran’s leadership will compel a compromise. The United Nations Security Council’s recent decision to tighten existing sanctions on Iran by prohibiting dealings with 15 individuals and 13 organizations aims at precisely that. But, while some within the US government argue that similar sanctions induced North Korea to compromise on its nuclear program, there are several reasons why the same strategy is unlikely to work with Iran.

First and foremost, targeted sanctions did not, in fact, really work with North Korea. The freeze on $25 million of the leadership’s assets held at Banco Delta Asia in Macau has certainly irritated the North Koreans. But the asset freeze did not prevent Kim Jong-Il from ordering a ballistic missile test last July or an underground nuclear test in October.

Instead, North Korea’s willingness to resume negotiations partly reflects the Americans’ decision to stop insisting on the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear program as a pre-condition for talks on normalizing relations. The Bush administration has accepted that North Korea is a nuclear power and that outsiders can do little about it, so the United States has shifted its diplomatic stance from the hard-line Japanese approach to the more flexible and stability-oriented Chinese position.

That shift is understandable. Given its simultaneous military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with North Korea’s demonstrated nuclear capability, the Bush administration can’t credibly threaten Kim with force. Sanctions have rattled the North Korean leadership, but not nearly enough to compel them to surrender fully the nuclear program, which is their ultimate guarantee of security.