Tightening sanctions on Iran

Barely two weeks ago, the drumbeat of war against Iran pounded like a throbbing headache. Israel's prime minister made the rounds in Washington threatening to launch a pre-emptive attack, while President Barack Obama argued his best case for letting economic sanctions run their course.

After the prime minister's departure, the international banking system came together like never before. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, broke a longstanding neutrality policy and announced it would disconnect about 30 Iranian banks from the system, including Iran's central bank. As of Saturday, Iran's ability to finance its march toward nuclear armament became tougher than ever.

Without access to SWIFT, it becomes almost impossible to complete the large international funds transfers necessary to keep any nation's economy functioning smoothly. Perhaps SWIFT's break from neutrality is a measure of the financial world's overriding concern about the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Tehran should have noticed instantaneous effects of SWIFT's cutoff when virtually all major funds transfers from abroad — totaling billions of dollars, mainly from oil transactions — suddenly ceased. Starting July 1, European nations will begin boycotting Iranian oil, while the U.S. tightens penalties on any foreign companies doing business with Iran's government. Without SWIFT, countries that still do business with Iran, including China and Russia, could be reduced to a barter system — say, trading four freight ships full of wheat for a tanker of oil.

The world rarely has seen the noose of international economic sanctions tighten so securely around a country of Iran's pivotal importance. Inflation in Iran now is estimated to exceed 20 percent. Iran's currency is plummeting in value.

The most prominent pro-Israel lobby group has lauded SWIFT's action and called for Congress and the Obama administration to tighten sanctions even further. It is crucial to keep economic pressure building on Tehran until it abides by treaty obligations and opens its nuclear facilities to international inspection.

A Pentagon simulation this month underscored the very high risks of catastrophic outcomes if Israel attacks and draws the U.S. into direct military confrontation with Iran. A pre-emptive strike against Iran would inflict only temporary nuclear setbacks, according to Pentagon assessments, but it would almost certainly cause Tehran to harden its intransigence and permanently seal its facilities from future outside inspection.

Meanwhile, the international solidarity required to make these sanctions work likely would disintegrate as Tehran flaunts the role of victim. Why open either possibility?

It's because the current compilation of sanctions is exceptionally strong that we stand with the Obama administration in urging patience and military restraint. Iran's worst economic pain is yet to come and, already, the signs are clear that this strategy is working.

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