Those with long memories—that go back, say, three months—will remember the last time the U.S. Treasury Department tried to bend an Axis of Evil member to its will through targeted financial sanctions.
Failure was the outcome.
Now the United States is trying for a do-over with Iran and, though the techniques—particularly for handling China—may be more sophisticated, I’m afraid the result will be the same.
As amply reported in this blog, Stuart Levey’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence repurposed Patriot Act Section 311 investigations away from their intended goal of perfecting the international anti-money laundering regime to attacks on the quite possibly legitimate assets of geopolitical targets and—something that got surprisingly short shrift from the international press—the assets and businesses of allies and neutrals who did not share the necessary enthusiasm for our strategic goals.
The previous intended victim of ad hoc financial sanctions secretly coordinated by the United States outside of the U.N. sanctions regime was supposed to be North Korea.
The whole effort imploded messily when sanctions endorsed piecemeal by Japan, Australia, and a few other countries—but not China or Russia—failed to do anything except encourage Pyongyang to accelerate its development of a nuclear deterrent.
The flagship enterprise of US financial sanctions—the two-year Patriot Act Section 311 investigation of Banco Delta Asia in Macau—collapsed when the State Department abandoned the BDA allegations, which stood revealed as an embarrassing farrago of cherrypicking, chestthumping, and cynical innuendo.
Even so, it took four agonizing months to get a recalcitrant Treasury Department to acquiesce to an unfreezing of the North Korean funds in BDA, even though the investigation could have been terminated and its measures rescinded overnight by a decision from Treasury.
At the time I speculated that the only reason for all this melodrama was to preserve Patriot Act Section 311 investigations’ aura of unilateral, unstoppable, and irreversible menace for the purpose of maintaining their credibility and intimidating power in the case of Iran.
But this time there’s a difference.
In 2005/2006 the North Korea effort was hijacked by regime-change hardliners typified by John Bolton, who sought to destroy Kim Jung Il’s regime by cutting off the flow of foreign exchange that they believed was vital to Kim to purchase the loyalty of his generals.
The only way to achieve a complete financial blockade was to obtain the cooperation of Beijing.
The hardline approach to the China issue was predictable, less than subtle, and completely ineffective.
The State Department’s point man for the anti-Nork effort at that time, David Asher, stated that the purpose of the move against BDA was to intimidate Chinese banks handling North Korean funds with the threat of being cut off from the US financial markets as BDA had been—“to kill the monkey in order to scare the chickens”, in Mr. Asher’s immortal phrase.
Well, the Chinese didn’t capitulate…and it turned out that the Bush administration was not interested in playing chicken with the Chinese over the fate of the world financial system, and did not sanction a further attack on Chinese banks.
So nothing was achieved except alarming and irritating the Chinese—and, oh yes, the North Koreans detonated a nuclear bomb and the sanctions regime fell apart.
However, it appears that U.S. policymakers haven’t drawn the lesson that coerced multilateralism is not only ineffective, it is counterproductive and, actually, a bad idea.
In fact, the Bush administration, that motherlode of bad ideas, apparently believes there are no bad ideas—only bad execution.
So on to Iran.
And this time it’s personal!
No,not Bush vs. Ahmadinejad.
Condi vs. Dick!
I think that this time Condi Rice has taken on the challenge of showing that she can do extra-UN unilaterally directed financial sanctions smarter, better, and more effectively than John Bolton, Vice President Cheney’s bespoke cat’s paw—and, in a high risk maneuver, she has staked the success of the diplomatic track in confronting Iran on showing results from the financial embargo.
Condi probably believes she has the acumen to enmesh China in our financial sanctions regime and persuade Beijing to abandon its support of Iran in the UN Security Council.
People who pay attention to the Iran sanctions regime have noted that pressuring European and Japanese banks to cease transactions with Iranian entities have simply pushed the business into China’s and Russia’s hands.
As Warren Strobel wrote for McClatchy:
Yet in some cases, when Western companies and banks move out of Iran, Chinese or other Asian firms simply move in and take the business.
And if we were dealing with the same reckless enthusiasts who controlled foreign policy in 2005-06, that self-defeating outcome would probably be the end of it.
But I give Condoleezza Rice and Stuart Levey more credit than that.
They’re smarter, and they also have the experience of the North Korea debacle to instruct them.
This time their menace is somewhat silken, in fact inchoate, compared with the full-bore frothing that characterized the anti-North Korea effort. From McClatchy:
The financial war began in earnest a year ago, when Treasury Department teams began briefing foreign governments and banks on intelligence the U.S. government had gathered on Iran. Among the findings was that the Central Bank of Iran was trying to conceal its role in financial transactions in which it was involved, a practice on which banks look askance, said the senior Treasury official.
“That’s just as suspicious as it sounds,” he said.
Compare that to the incendiary accusations against Kim Jung Il used to justify the North Korea financial embargo. The Evil Dwarf of Pyongyang was accused of running a Soprano State, raping our currency with his vile Supernotes, peddling fake Viagra and phony smokes, and ruthlessly trafficking in forbidden rhino horn. Efforts were made to shut down any access by any North Korean entity to any bank anywhere, apparently on pretty flimsy pretexts in some cases.
Let’s assume that subtlety, stronger dossiers, and a more incremental approach to chipping away at Iran’s access to the world’s financial system is going on today.
My speculation is this:
The U.S. isn’t threatening China directly this time.
Instead we are seeking to assemble a coalition of willing and coerced European and Asian partners to present China with a united front.
The next step in isolating Iran will be to have the European and Japanese banks go to China and tell Beijing they can’t risk doing business with Chinese banks if there is any fear of Iranian taint—because the US government is threatening to land on them like a ton of bricks.
So the Chinese had better decide whether they want to continue to do business with fine, enormous banks like UBS, HSBC, and Deutsche Bank (who have already severed Iran ties, probably under U.S. pressure)—not to mention all those US banks required under US law not to handle Iranian business—or do they want to risk it for the sake of creepy little Iran?
Better to back off and back the harsher U.N. Security Council sanctions the U.S. is now attempting to orchestrate.
I’m sure that Condi Rice is working the diplomatic channels as well, telling the Chinese as well as a Beltway journalist or two that success of her financial sanctions strategy is the only thing that stands between the world and another Dick Cheney—perpetrated military outrage in the Middle East.
That, I think, would be a futile and dangerous game for Secretary Rice to play.
For the United States, which prior to 9/11 had not witnessed a large scale hostile foreign action on its soil since Pearl Harbor, is used to dishing out violence, not taking it in.
War in the homeland is an existential catastrophe and a terrifying journey into an unknown territory of fear, confusion, self-doubt, and danger.
Countries like China and Iran, on the other hand, have living memories of numerous battles within their boundaries that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives
A brief review of the “Forgotten Gulf War” in the 1980s (Iraqi aggression, 8 years, 500,000+ Iranian casualties, chemical warfare, missile attacks on Teheran) and the Chinese Anti-Japanese War (Japanese aggression, 8 years, 19 million Chinese fatalities, total war against civilians in some areas) might provide some useful perspective for our policymakers.
To countries like Iran and China, war is catastrophic and terrible—but sometimes it is unavoidable and often it is survivable.
That means that the clocks don’t stop and the world doesn’t end when the first bomb falls.
It means victims and bystanders start thinking about the post-battle challenges—and opportunities—before they occur.
Does Beijing want to permanently alienate the Iranians by going along with a US financial embargo and sanctions regime?
Or does it want to be the steadfast ally who extends a helping humanitarian, economic, and diplomatic hand to the enraged Iranians as they dig out of the rubble of the attack?
I wouldn’t bet on the first option, Condi.
Hopefully she has another plan to forestall a military attack if the financial sanctions campaign recapitulates its North Korean failure. Like engagement, maybe?
But it doesn’t look like the debate has been framed that way. McClatchy, again:
More broadly, nations from Cuba to Myanmar have managed to survive under economic assault, manipulating sanctions to blame outside forces and rally support from their people.
Another obstacle is here at home, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faces stiff opposition from hard-liners led by Cheney. The Cheney camp argues that diplomacy and pressure are doomed to fail to stop Iran from going nuclear.
So, in response to a potential weaponization of Iranian nuclear assets that will occur, if ever, years after the Bush administration leaves office, we’ve got a false choice between a sanctions policy that failed against North Korea, and an aggressive military strategy that failed in Iraq.
Remind me, what are we paying these people for?
As a P.S., I realize I haven’t addressed the issue of addressing Russian intransigence on Iran.
“Russia is hiding behind China” is the current administration meme , which I don’t find a particularly persuasive piece of wishful thinking.
It would seem that the U.S. strategy is to peel China away from Iran and hope that Russia has no stomach for standing alone in the Security Council to defend Teheran’s nuclear program.
Good luck with that. I think that the increasingly assertive Russians are less interested than ever in dancing the diplomatic quadrille with the United States.
Maybe there’s a Russian affairs blog out there willing to pitch in on the question of Vladimir Putin feels the need to “hide” behind Hu Jintao.