In the run-up to Monday’s debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the most disputed foreign policy issue hasn’t been Afghanistan, where roughly 68,000 US troops are still based in the fight against Al Qaeda, or the contentious decision by the Obama administration to withdraw US troops from Iraq.
As moderator Martha Raddatz said at the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate, the biggest national security threat faced by the United States is now considered to be the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Every American is less secure today because [President Obama] has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat,” Mitt Romney said at the Republican National Convention in August. The Republican candidate has since argued that Mr. Obama hasn’t been tough enough on Tehran, and he has vowed to institute a different, harsher sanctions program that will be sure to cripple the Islamic Republic.
But analysts, legal experts, and US-allied diplomats say that when it comes to sanctions on Iran, US legislation isn't expected to differ much from one administration to another. Short of conducting a unilateral military strike or declaring war against the Islamic Republic, a Romney administration would be faced with the same legislative options on Iran as President Obama, who has already administered them.
Former President George W. Bush began implementing legislation for harsher financial sanctions against Iran during his last two years in office. After the 2008 presidential election, the Obama administration instituted and expanded those sanctions at a speed that has made current US sanctions policy on Iran the harshest in contemporary history. This leaves a potential new Romney administration with few policy alternatives.
“The only thing Romney can really do to get to the right of Obama on Iran policy is to say he'd bomb Iran if elected president, or would actively promote and pursue a policy of regime change,” says Karim Sajadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Given the misgivings Americans have about the Iraq war, I don't think those are winning talking points for him.”
Since Obama became president in 2009, his administration has used a carrot-and-stick approach with the Islamic Republic, practicing a policy of limited engagement while boosting the implementation of Bush-era financial sanctions against Tehran and enacting new, tighter financial restrictions.
Iran’s economy began feeling the bite of new US and United Nations sanctions during the last two years of former President Bush’s second term in office. When Obama became president, the US Treasury Department upped the ante on Iran sanctions, accelerating their implementation and obtaining concrete commitments from US allies and private international entities to institute them as well.
Obama’s administration has also been tougher on US allies, particularly in Europe, flanking traditional diplomacy with direct pressure for collaboration on Iran policy, according to interviews with western European diplomats.
“A lot of what has come out on sanctions is a result of what Congress is passing,” says Erich Ferrari, a DC-based lawyer specializing in US Treasury legislation and author of the first comprehensive guide to US transactions regulations on Iran. “What Obama did was continue Bush-era policies and put them on steroids.”
Western European diplomats say Obama has been less willing than the Bush administration to engage in “multilateral conversations” with Europe on sanctions, opting instead to directly pressure some governments and private institutions to agree with and implement Washington’s unilateral sanctions laws.
As a result, US financial sanctions against Iran – now considered the harshest in recent history – have during the last four years been integrated into the global banking system much more quickly and deeply.
The US now sanctions foreign companies that do not significantly cut or completely stop purchases of Iranian oil, and it penalizes banks engaging in financial transactions with the Islamic Republic.
Coupled with a European embargo on Iran's oil imposed in July, the country’s oil exports have fallen by more than 50 percent since last year, forcing Tehran to continue reducing oil production as a result of declining demand. This summer, Iraq out-produced Iran for the first time in more than twenty years, according to data from the International Energy Agency.
US banking sanctions have also hindered Tehran from accessing its foreign exchange reserves held overseas, constraining the ability of its central bank to defend the value of Iran’s national currency, which has fallen by roughly 80 percent since last year.
The European Union intensified its sanctions against Tehran last week, formally barring all trade and transactions with Iranian banks (except those with specific EU government permission), and tightening restrictions against Iran’s central bank, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company.
In addition to sanctions, Iran has dealt with breaches to its security.
Since January 2010, Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, has reportedly conducted covert operations leading to the assassinations of at least four Iranian nuclear scientists, according to intelligence officials cited anonymously in a Time Magazine report. A wave of damaging cyberattacks targeting Iran’s nuclear-fuel centrifuges started in mid-2009.
“After this level of sanctions, the only thing left would be a real blockade of all communications,” says Roberto Toscano, who served as Italy’s Ambassador to Iran for five years until 2008.
Aside from a military strike on Iran by either the US or Israel, which could drag Washington into a regional war, the only policy option left beyond sanctions is diplomacy, Ambassador Toscano says, adding: “If we think sanctions alone will make them cave, this is not going to happen.”