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Iran Watch: Is the United States waivering?

Iran Watch: Is the United States waivering?

The United States is betting that increasingly biting sanctions against Tehran — including new penalties for foreign institutions that continue to buy Iranian oil through its central bank — can compel Iranian leaders to make concessions on their nuclear program and avert a military confrontation.

So the news yesterday that the Obama administration was issuing Japan and 10 European nations six-month waivers from these very sanctions seemed odd — as if the United States was taking its foot off the gas pedal just ahead of nuclear talks with Iran next month. In fact, that’s exactly how Iranian officials are spinning the news. Here’s a read of the Iranian press today from the Los Angeles Times:

Fars News headlined its story on the sanctions, “U.S.A. backs down against Iran.”

“Such a move is an overt retreat from their earlier stances,” the head of the parliament foreign policy commission, Aladin Borujerdi, told the Iranian Students News Agency. He said it was “due to decisive stances taken by the Islamic Republic” defending its nuclear program.

Borujerdi also argued that the U.S. had exempted the countries to stop oil prices from rising further, a bid to spare “the tumbling economies of the West.”

“Exempting 11 countries show that sanctions were the results of impulsive decisions,” Kazam Jalali, the Iranian deputy head of national security, told ISNA.

Iran meter: If the United States is indeed watering down its sanction effort to avoid destabilizing the global oil market and alienating its allies, that could heighten the risk of a military confrontation and push our dial to the right. But Iranian officials may be misreading the situation, deliberately or not.

For one thing, the United States is granting the 11 countries exemptions because they have significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil — not because they refused to budge on their commercial dealings with Iran and Washington backed down. True, Japan, a top Iranian oil importer, has been vague about how far it’s willing to go to wean itself off Iranian crude, but its oil imports from Iran fell 12 percent in January compared with a year earlier — even as it struggled to recover from last year’s earthquake and nuclear crisis. The ten European nations who received waivers had already agreed to stop importing Iranian oil beginning in July.

What’s more, the exemptions don’t apply to China and India, which, along with Japan, buy roughly half of Iran’s crude exports. And while the Chinese and Indians haven’t yet turned their backs on Iran, they’re not embracing Tehran either. China’s largest bank recently backed out of a deal to finance an Iran-to-Pakistan gas pipeline, and China’s imports of Iranian oil dropped by 45 percent in February from a month earlier, though this mainly stemmed from a business dispute. 

This week’s exemptions also omitted Turkey and South Korea — two U.S. allies who also happen to consume a lot of Iranian oil. “It is out of the question for us to stop buying oil from Iran unless the supply is replaced,” Turkey’s energy minister declared today.

In other words, if you want to get a sense of whether the sanctions regime U.S. officials are constructing will work, don’t focus on the list of countries who now have exemptions. Keep your eye on those that didn’t make the cut.