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Iran sanctions exceed expectations but still don't change Tehran's behavior

Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP file

An oil refinery and petrochemical complex is seen in the port of Mahshahr, Iran, in May 2007. A new report says a U.S. and EU oil embargo has severely reduced Iran's oil exports and revenues.

Are economic sanctions successful if the Iranian economy crashes but the regime continues developing its nuclear program? That is the dichotomy now playing out inside the Islamic state, according to new data on the Iranian economy and its nuclear program.

The latest data on the quantitative success of the sanctions comes from an economics research firm, the Rhodium Group of New York. In a paper published last week, Rhodium said that customs data from around the world show both Iranian oil exports and revenues have dropped precipitously.


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“As customs data for the month of July rolls in, we’re getting a clearer picture of Iranian exports the first month after new U.S. and EU sanctions formally took effect,” states the report. “And it’s not a pretty one for Tehran.”


Specifically, the report states that the “best guess” on Iranian oil exports in July is no greater than 940,000 barrels per day, down from 1.7 million barrels per day  in June and 2.8 million barrels a day a year ago. Oil revenue dropped even more sharply, from $9.8 billion in July 2011 to $2.9 billion a year later. The disparity between the drop in oil sales and the decline in revenues was partly attributable to tumbling oil prices; even the value China’s oil imports dropped 28 percent from June to July. 

But Trevor Houser, the author of the report and a former senior adviser to the Obama State Department, says the success of the sanctions is surprising even to those who thought them up. “The July decline in Iranian oil exports and revenue is greater than anyone imagined would occur when U.S. sanctions were signed into law at the beginning of the year,” said Houser, a partner at Rhodium Group.  

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U.S. and international sanctions -- mainly imposed by the European Union -- constrain a broad range commerce with Iran. They encompass the oil embargo, restrictions on the Iranian banking sector and its ability to carry out international transactions, the importation of industrial and construction equipment, and even luxury goods.

One of the most crippling has been a ban by SWIFT, the international financial clearinghouse, on Iranian funds transfers. Officials say the SWIFT sanctions have been particularly effective in limiting Iranian imports of all sorts of goods, even food supplies. The sanctions are so broad that the U.S. Treasury Department has exhaustive documentation on what is permitted, what is not, as well as licensing requirements.

At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program shows while Iranian oil revenue was declining, there was a simultaneous and dramatic increase in the number of centrifuges at Iran’s once-secret Fordow nuclear site. Iran in fact more than doubled the number of installed centrifuges -- from 1,064 to 2,140 -- in May, the IAEA reported.

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The centrifuges, which are not the latest models that Iran possesses, have not been turned on, but U.S. officials call the speedup “troubling” if not a “game changer.” The Iranians also have increased their stockpile of highly enriched uranium, indicating that they have been getting better at the enrichment process.

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Finally, at a military nuclear site named Parchin, which the IAEA wants to inspect, crucial buildings had been demolished and earth removed, the IAEA reported. Western diplomats see this as part of a cover-up by Iran of illicit nuclear-linked tests.

'Economic warfare'
So while the shipping data show the sanctions are a quantitative success – causing a rapid deterioration of Iran’s oil-driven economy – the IAEA data suggest no qualitative success. Iran continues to install new centrifuges and enrich more uranium, while refusing to permit IAEA inspections of Parchin.

“The challenge is it (the embargo) doesn’t seem to have much of an impact,” on Iran’s behavior, Houser admits.

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That doesn’t mean sanctions should be abandoned, says Mark Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who runs an activist group, United Against Nuclear Iran, that’s engaged in shaming Western companies into abandoning business in Iran.

"Sanctions are clearly having an impact, but we can do much more and must,” said Wallace, who advocates “economic warfare” against Iran. “Importantly, the most robust sanctions in history can only prevent Iran from going nuclear if they are part of a larger strategy that includes thoughtful military planning and rigorous diplomatic activity."

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Wallace points to victories big and small. He notes that in the last few days, a Russian firm decided to stop verifying safety and environmental standards for one of Iran's biggest shipping groups, making it more difficult for it to operate internationally.

It’s not surprising that economic sanctions don’t produce an immediate effect, says David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which monitors nuclear proliferation. They take time.

“It’s a sticky thing with sanctions,” said Albright. “Nothing happens and then suddenly something big happens. It’s hard to predict what's going to happen over next six months as the sanctions tighten.

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

“The other part of the story (that Iran continues to make progress on its nuclear program) is true, which is why it’s all immensely frustrating to countries. It argues that ways have to be found to delay Iran from making progress on its nuclear program, because in a sense you need more time for sanctions and that means more covert actions,” like the Stuxnet virus and attacks on Iranian scientists. The former is believed to have been a joint U.S.-Israeli sabotage operation, while the latter is said to be an Israeli secret service initiative.

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Albright also says that the sanctions have to be accompanied by a threat of military action if Iran continues on what the U.S., Israel and other Western nations believe is a path to nuclear weapons.

“The part of it is that it has to be clear in Iran's mind is that the United States will strike militarily to stop them,” he said.  

Iran: 'We can manage this'
Iran’s response has been that it will never give up its “legitimate” right to develop nuclear energy, while steadfastly denying it is working on a nuclear weapons program.

Privately, Iranian officials dismiss the effect sanctions have on Iran’s nuclear policies. They say the effects of the Iran-Iraq War that ravaged the country for eight years in the 1980s -- a war in which the United States covertly supported Saddam Hussein’s regime – were far worse.

 “If we could manage that, we can manage this,” said one official, speaking with NBC News on condition of anonymity.

A U.S. official indicates that no significant developments have occurred as world leaders meet with Iranian representatives in Turkey to discuss Iran's nuclear intentions. NBC's Ali Arouzi reports.

Asked to estimate the chances that sanctions will lead to Iran ending its uranium program, the official replied, “Zero.”

Other Iranian officials say the sanctions are part of a “secret war” led by the U.S. and Israel that also includes the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, infections of Iranian computer networks, drone overflights and even U.S. Special Forces insertions within Iran’s borders.

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In the face of such provocations, one suggested, how long can Iran decline to respond?

Reprisals could already be under way. Israel has accused Iran of planning or carrying out recent attacks on its diplomatic personnel in Azerbaijan, India and Thailand, as well as orchestrating a bombing that killed four Israeli students on vacation in Bulgaria.

The Iranians strongly deny any role in those plots.

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News.

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