The Limitations of Sanctions

Foreign affairs with potential world-disrupting impacts are rudely interrupting U.S. domestic concerns like major legislative initiatives and measures to deal with the ongoing COVID pandemic.

The crisis in Ukraine, around whose borders Russia has positioned more than 130,000 troops, has yet to meet its denouement. Late last week, President Biden warned of a “distinct possibility” that Russia might take military action against the former Soviet state, and threatened a barrage of economic sanctions against Russia if it should invade Ukraine.

Russia’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, insisted that Moscow was not planning to invade Ukraine but also warned that it would not allow the West to “rudely trample on and ignore” its security interests.

But with troops, tanks, heavy artillery and medical units poised in every direction around Ukraine, assurances of the Kremlin’s peaceful intentions are of limited value. No one doubts Moscow’s intense displeasure with its former state’s aligning itself, as it has been doing, with the West.

The Ukrainian government has played down the immediacy of the threat, but that is likely a strategic move to deprive Russia of an excuse to send its troops over the border. Any show of belligerency, or any remark that could be twisted to signal ill intent, would provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with a pretext for an incursion.

The Ukraine situation should not allow the U.S. to ignore Iran, whose cooperation the administration is courting to re-establish the multilateral 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the U.S.’s participation in that imperfect deal, pledging to negotiate a better one. That didn’t come about, though, and Iran has since taken unprecedented steps toward developing a nuclear weapon.

Multiple rounds of indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Vienna to revive JCPOA have been marred by repeated delays, and have thus far yielded nothing. Washington has been pushing for direct talks with Iranian officials, saying it would be “more productive.”

The Biden administration’s chief negotiator, Iran envoy Robert Malley, seems eager to reach some sort of new deal, but it will not likely be stronger than the original one, and it is too late to do anything about the past years’ advancement of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Mr. Malley’s top deputy, Richard Nephew, and two other team members have quit the team, reportedly over disagreements with Mr. Malley’s strategy.

And if those international crises weren’t enough, North Korea has been firing missiles, including long-range cruise missiles, into the sea at a rate never seen before. It also recently conducted two tests of what it described as a hypersonic missile.

Although North Korea has not tested long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons since 2017, when previous talks with the U.S. were discontinued, the nation is known to possess nuclear weapons, more than 60, according to some experts, and, when talks halted, the rogue regime wasted no time resuming short-range missile tests.

Last Wednesday, the U.S. State Department condemned the launches, saying they violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and pose a threat to neighboring countries.

Yesterday, according to South Korea’s President, North Korea fired what is presumed to be its longest range ballistic missile since 2017.

In 2019, then-President Trump rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities. Earlier this month, the U.S. tightened crippling U.S.-led sanctions against Pyongyang, imposing them on five North Koreans it alleged were helping procure supplies for North Korea’s weapons program.

The recent missile frenzy is understood by some experts as a defiant reaction to that upgrade in pressure by the U.S. and South Korea on the North to return to nuclear talks.

Mark Lambert, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Japan and Korea, said that the United States will “go anywhere” and “talk about anything” with North Korea.

“We have to have a serious discussion about the denuclearization of North Korea, and if North Korea is willing to do that, all sorts of promising things can happen,” Mr. Lambert said recently.

But North Korea has refused to engage in talks, saying the U.S. needs to first lift sanctions.

And, despite its offer of open-ended talks, the Biden administration has shown no willingness to ease sanctions unless North Korea takes concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles.

Escalating matters more was North Korea’s veiled threat last week to resume the testing of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the American homeland.

North Korea’s continued ignoring of world opinion and belligerence, despite the heavy sanctions that have caused it much economic pain over the years, should serve as a reminder that sanctions alone have not proven effective in curbing the ambitions of a member of what former President George W. Bush memorably called the “axis of evil.”

Another member of that criminal club, of course, is Iran.

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