U.S. Weapons Sanctions Against Iran Draw Mixed Reviews

The Bush administration has relied on sanctions in its efforts to block foreign companies from selling anything to Iran that could be used to develop nuclear or chemical weapons. Many critics question whether such sanctions are effective, and some say they're actually counterproductive.

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While the Bush Administration wants the world to consider targeted sanctions against Iran, the United States has long been imposing its own punishments. The Bush Administration has come under fire for the way it's been using sanctions against foreign companies that trade with what it regards as a rogue nation.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

While North Korea is already believed to have developed nuclear weapons, and the U.S. thinks Iran is on its way, the State Department says sanctions against companies are still a valuable part of its effort to keep banned weapons out of the wrong hands. Jon Wolfsthal is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says the Bush administration has been more willing than its predecessors to impose these kinds of sanctions.

Mr. JON WOLFSTHAL (Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Because for this administration, it's not just about non-proliferation, although they clearly don't want weapons to spread. But underlying their view toward these countries is a desire for regime change.

FLINTOFF: The most recent sanctions involve companies in China, India, and Austria, imposed under the Iran Non-Proliferation Act. State Department officials refused to explain why these companies were singled out, saying it would compromise intelligence sources. Scott Gearity, an export control consultant, says the standard for imposing sanctions on companies is quite low, based only on credible information.

Mr. SCOTT GEARITY (Export Control Consultant): And who determines that? It's the administration. They decide what credible information is. And in this case, at least, they haven't really released any significant amount of information that others might be able to use to make their own mind up about whether this was really something that could contribute to a proliferation program.

FLINTOFF: The two Indian chemical companies that were sanctioned, in the latest round in December, Sabero Organics Gujarat Limited and Sandhya Organics Limited, said they sold Iran chemicals that are used to make legitimate commercial products, including pesticides and plastics. Scott Gearity says the chemicals can also be used as precursors for chemical weapons, but that they're controlled under the least restrictive standards in the World Chemical Weapons Convention. The sanctions angered India at a critical time during negotiations for President Bush's nuclear cooperation deal with the Indian government. Given that the nuclear deal is facing an uphill fight for congressional approval, the sanctions could add to the burden on U.S.-Indian relations.

Joseph Cirincione is the director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Dr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (Director of Non-Proliferation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): In the case of India, I believe, this could come back to haunt us. If the nuclear deal runs into the anticipated problems it's likely to encounter in Congress, then the sanctions will be added to the list of insults that India has been expected to bear. And it could stir up opposition in that country to cooperation with the United States.

FLINTOFF: Another problem is that sanctions often have little real effect on the companies involved. Again, Jon Wolfsthal.

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: For many of these companies, the sanction is that they don't get to do business with the U.S. government. And many of them aren't doing business with the U.S. government anyway. So, there really is no impact for them.

FLINTOFF: Jeffrey Lewis is the executive director of Harvard University's Managing the Atom Project. He investigated the case of the sanctioned Indian companies, and he says there would have been a better way for the U.S. to handle such problems by enlisting the Indian government's help.

Dr. JEFFREY LEWIS (Executive Director, Managing the Atom Project, Harvard University): The alternative to sanctions is demarches. A demarche is just simply one government telling another that something has happened that we don't like, and so we usually provide information about the nature of that action.

FLINTOFF: Lewis believes that the Bush administration chose sanctions because it was unwilling to give what it considered to be sensitive information to the Indian government.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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