The Symbol or the Substance?

The UN Security Council was set to vote this morning on new sanctions/strengthening existing sanctions targeting Iran.  The US administration seems to be keen on building up just how tough these new sanctions are.   I have to wonder how much of this is simply rhetorical and how much reflects an actual belief in the efficacy of sanctions within the Obama administration. 

Part of the success of this new round of sanctions could largely be symbolic to the extent that getting all five Security Council members to sign off on them represents some degree of consensus and a renewed effort to work through international institutions.  Even if the new resolution is watered down slightly, perhaps having Russia and China on board means more in the long run.  Sanctions can be difficult to enforce, and my impression is that touting their toughness might be a way to simplify and sell this action as something with a greater substantive impact than is actually the case.   

I'm also wondering just how much recent events have played into the calculations of the Security Council members.  Charles Kupchan has a recent article outlining the importance of continued dialogue with Iran even under a new set of sanctions.  One point he addresses is the concern that Israel would launch unilateral attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities.  With the recent fiasco involving the aid flotilla, Israel has further alienated itself in the eyes of many in the international community.  But this incident also shows that Israel continues to be willing to endure condemnation from the international community, and perhaps lowers the reputational costs for taking other drastic steps, like attacking Iranian nuclear facilities.  This article from the New York Times discusses Israel's attempts to use this possibility as leverage in getting China to sign on to the current round of sanctions.  So perhaps to some extent the strained relations between Israel and the US, its primary international benefactor, work to the US' advantage in this whole ordeal by reminding the world not to overestimate the influence of one state over another.  Negotiations with the US and its allies might seem more palatable to Ahmadinejad if they also believe that the ability of Israel's allies to convince them to refrain from taking unilateral military action is limited.  I'd guess that this would have more of an influence down the road more if Iran continues to resist the pressure from sanctioning countries. 

That said, I'd also guess that the US would want to tread lightly.  Given our current military commitments I'm sure nobody in the administration wants to see things escalate between Iran and Israel to the point of a major armed conflict.  I think this possibility should also push the US to keep diplomacy on the table, as Kupchan argues we should.  This brings me back to my initial question on how the administration perceives sanctions.  My impression is that popular perception within the US is that sanctions are a weak substitute for military action, so the talk of how tough the sanctions are could mostly be for the Obama administration's domestic audience.  

And is it possible that China's slow-to-anger approach to the North Korean/South Korean situation as of late has resulted in a transfer of action to another front?  Realistically, I don't think anyone should be expecting anything drastic on the North Korean front.  China is certainly not going to cut ties with their old friends, but there is greater room for action on the Iranian nuclear issue.  From the US perspective at least, I suspect it would be worth relaxing some of the pressure on China over the Korean situation in favor of getting them to step in on the Iranian issue.        


About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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