The sanctions imposed on Iran in the past week by the United Nations Security Council are no more likely to cause Tehran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons than three previous U.N. resolutions have been. Still, the Obama Administration deserves credit for persuading the big powers on the Council to express their collective disapproval of Iran.
The new sanctions keep the door open for further negotiations, even if the erratic regime in Tehran shows no inclination to walk through it. But as the United States and other nations try to engage Iran, they must also be prepared to ratchet up their economic pressure on the Islamic theocracy and to support the internal opposition that has emerged to its murderously repressive rule.
The stakes are high. Iran continues to enrich uranium needed to make nuclear fuel. The government's insistence that it is doing so for peaceful purposes is belied by its rejection of generous international incentives to help it develop a domestic nuclear-power industry without the need to produce fuel. Tehran is blocking inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which warns that Iran has the capacity to build two nuclear weapons.
The latest round of sanctions is supported by Russia and China, which previously opposed them. But both countries are playing something of a double game: China has substantial oil investments in Iran, and Russia has built a nuclear plant there and is selling Tehran air-defense missiles. Voting against the sanctions were Turkey and Brazil, which were manipulated by Iran into cutting a deal on nuclear fuel that accomplished nothing.
The sanctions impose penalties on 40 Iranian companies, twice the current number, although none is directly engaged in energy production. They also target activities of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which directs the nuclear program. They ban sales of heavy weapons to Iran and prohibit Tehran from pursuing weapons that can deliver nuclear weapons and from investing in uranium mines.
Although President Obama calls the sanctions the toughest ever approved, they fall short of the "crippling" penalties he previously demanded. Iran has found ways to circumvent previous bans on arms sales.
The European Union could help by enacting measures it is considering to crack down on member nations' energy, trade, and financial dealings that could promote Iran's nuclear program. An embargo on Iran's oil sales, a step the U.N. has been reluctant to take, must remain a live option.
Even though Iran has spurned the Obama Administration's repeated offers to negotiate an end to its nuclear ambitions, those efforts need to continue. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is unthinkable, but a military strike on the country would itself destabilize the Middle East.
The U.N. vote occurred near the first anniversary of Iran's stolen election, in which the incumbent government kept power through fraud and expressed that power through deadly violence against its opponents. Iran's dissident movement, officially suppressed but very much alive, remains a force for reform that the United States and the U.N. need to cultivate.