412 representatives support counterproductive Iran sanctions

 In Iran

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted 412-12 (with 4 members voting “present”) to pass the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, a broad, aggressive sanctions bill that few if any analysts think will actually “put the squeeze” on Iran. The bill was added to the suspension calendar, which is reserved for “non-controversial” legislation, allowing limited debate and requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. (Also on the calendar was a bill honoring the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue.” Punishing the Iranian people by trying to cut off gas imports is as uncontroversial as liking Miles Davis? Actually, that bill only got 409 votes).

I won’t rehash all the arguments that I laid out in my blog series and Op-Ed. As Steve Clemons wrote, this bill is not rooted in sound policy; it is Congress caving to political pressure and grasping at straws trying to channel frustration and demonstrate they are “tough on Iran” ™. One of the most offensive angles to this development is that many of the same members of Congress who championed Iranian human rights after the disputed presidential election are now throwing their weight behind sanctions that have been vocally opposed by members of the Green Movement.  As Matt Duss over at Think Progress tells us:

I’ll give Rubin credit for this much: At least, unlike IRPSA sponsor Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), Rubin hasn’t ridiculously suggested that the Iranian people actually want the U.S. to impose sanctions that will hurt the Iranian people. Rubin just says that we shouldn’t care. But, of course, we should care — at least if we’re serious about creating the political space necessary for Iran’s Green movement to successfully challenge, and ideally replace, the current regime. Blunt, poorly-designed sanctions like those contained in IRPSA, while perhaps providing Congresspersons opportunities for sanctimonious grandstanding, do just the opposite: They would offer Iran’s hardliners a powerful propaganda lifeline, and would likely facilitate greater regime consolidation right at the moment that the conservative consensus around Ahmadinejad is starting to crack up. This is probably the reason why Green movement leaders and spokespersons in the West have condemned them.

The vote, while only one step toward implementing sanctions, is counterproductive in and of itself. When I visited Iran in May, I heard time and again that Iranians have doubts about the US’s sincerity in reshaping the relationship between our countries. One local businessman described US policy toward Iran as “holding out a carrot, but hiding a bottle behind your back.” Congress is making gross miscalculations when they assume that the “good cop/bad cop” dynamic toward Iran is helpful. There is little incentive for Iran to negotiate in good faith when it appears that Congress is intent on punishing them regardless of their willingness to come to the table. Two months is a ridiculously small amount of time to pass judgments on the efficacy of diplomacy and move to harsher action.

There are other opportunities for impacting the debate on sanctions before the bill becomes law. The Senate has not voted on similar legislation, and most likely won’t get to it until 2010. The administration has weighed in and is pushing for adjustments to the bill before President Obama is willing to sign it. Josh Rogin at The Cable reports:

The feeling in Congress, multiple sources told The Cable, is that all parties concerned see today’s House action as only the latest in a long series of negotiations about how Iran sanctions might materialize. Also, as is often the case, the Berman bill is likely to undergo significant changes after passage, particularly when it goes to conference and has to be reconciled with whatever the Senate and the administration negotiate.

“Everybody is excited, but hold your horses,” said one Hill source. “This has to be thoroughly vetted before it goes to Obama’s desk.”

That will be a tough fight for House conferees, considering that they will be negotiating against both the Senate and the White House with the implicit and omnipresent message about the Senate bill being, “This is what we can get passed and signed.”

Moreover, there’s a recognition inside the system that the House version of the bill, as stands, has some provisions that are seen as problematic. For example, the Berman bill would mandate some sanctions that are optional under current law, which the administration fears would raise trade and WTO compliance issues.

Specifically, regarding third countries’ complicity in complying with the sanctions, the Berman bill would expand their obligation from having to act on “actual knowledge” of violations, to penalizing countries that have “constructive knowledge” of violations — in other words, holding them to account for things they should know or should have known.

Looking ahead, our most important priority must be building support for serious negotiations with Iran, and engaging in actual diplomacy—not just putting a deal on the table and then telling Iran to take it or leave it. Once we declare diplomacy dead, we are left with an unpalatable set of options—including sanctions and military action– that will not reduce tensions between our countries and will only exacerbate the situation. Hillary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett offer a vision of what real engagement with Iran would look like:

Serious engagement with a country with which the United States has deeply strained and potentially conflictual relations requires a lot more than simply a willingness to talk “without preconditions”.  Among other things, it means a willingness to define the end goal of a diplomatic process at the outset—in the way that the Nixon Administration worked with Chinese leaders to define a long-term agenda for the strategic realignment of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.  The breakthrough with China would not have been possible except through such a strategically-grounded approach.  And, at this point, that is the only way in which relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran can be put on a fundamentally more positive trajectory.

As Foreign Minister Mottaki sometimes says, with reference to the much-hyped “overtures” from the Obama Administration, “Before I go into a room, I need to know what is going to be in it”.  But that is something the Obama Administration has never provided to the Iranian leadership.  Yes, President Obama’s references, in his inaugural address, to dealing with the “Islamic Republic of Iran” in an atmosphere of “mutual respect” were fine, and the Nowruz message was lovely.  There have also been non-public messages to the Iranians, indicating that the Obama Administration is open to talking about a wide range of issues besides the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.

But the Obama Administration has yet to make a case to the Iranian leadership that it seeks a genuine strategic realignment of relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic and how such a realignment would address the Islamic Republic’s core national security and foreign policy interests.  Until it does that, the Obama Administration has not pursued serious diplomatic engagement with Tehran.  Certainly, the P-5+1 incentives package that the Obama Administration inherited from the George W. Bush Administration is wholly inadequate as a framework for genuinely strategic engagement.  But the Obama Administration has decided not to go beyond this wholly inadequate package in its own representations to Iran.  That is not how strategically consequential diplomacy is done.

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