New Sanctions Will Do More Damage Than Good

 In Iran

Last week both the Senate and the House approved of the sanctions “package,” or the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (H.R.2194), against Iran, and it goes to the president’s desk for signing tomorrow. The bill reinforces the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) renewed in 2006, with additional economic penalties meant to push Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program.

What’s truly remarkable is the politics behind the near unanimous passage of a sanctions package that there is very little evidence will work. In the House, the bill passed 408-8, and the Senate passed the bill 99-0.

Obviously, given those numbers, there were many progressives on the Hill who voted for this bill, including members of Congress that have told us they know that sanctions won’t work. The fact is, when it comes to looking “tough” on Iran, there is an enormous amount of peer pressure at work in DC. Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind) offered a glimpse of the prevailing beltway wisdom when he suggested that a failure to implement these sanctions by the administration could lead to a second holocaust.

“These sanctions include a number of waivers demanded by the Obama Administration, but it is essential that President Obama carry out the clear Congressional intent and cripple Iran’s energy and financial sectors in implementing this legislation. Iran could be merely months away from acquiring nuclear weapons. They continue to test vehicles that could deliver it. This is a time for decisive action by the American Congress and the American administration. Failure to act by this Congress or failure to implement these sanctions by this administration could lead to a second holocaust.”

The idea that Iran could be months (days even!) away from a nuclear bomb is the often-repeated and misleading refrain for those on the side of an aggressive stance. As we’ve emphasized on this blog:

“While the bluster and posturing of the Ahmadinejad regime makes things difficult, the US must maintain perspective about statements like Iran’s intent to build 10 nuclear plants and enrich uranium to 20%–nobody credible thinks Iran can build 10 nuclear plants, and 20% enriched uranium, if they even could make it, is still many steps away from a bomb.”

True diplomacy, the kind we really need with Iran, involves give and take, obligations and incentives. Still, as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) points out, we haven’t truly gotten started on a true diplomatic effort.

If you remember, Obama’s “extended hand” got pretty well chopped off at the wrist on June 12 when Iran’s hardliners declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the victor in an election widely believed to have been fraudulent.  After that came calls for a “tactical pause,” followed by the revelation of the undisclosed enrichment facility at Qom and the abortive attempt to negotiate a fuel swap deal in October.  Taken as a whole, US engagement with Iran under Obama has consisted of two Nowruz messages to the Iranian people, a half hour face-to-face meeting on Oct. 1, the lower level follow-up meeting three weeks later, a letter or two to the Supreme Leader, and that dinner with Mottaki just before the UN sanctions vote that no one thought would accomplish anything.  That’s it.

The sad fact is that Obama’s Iran strategy has focused a lot more on US allies and countries like Russia and China than on Iran.  The bulk of our diplomacy has consisted of Stuart Levey lobbying allied countries to withhold business ties from Iran, and convincing UN Security Council members to impose another round of sanctions.  Hell, even the sanctions themselves target European, Russian, Indian, and Chinese companies — everyone except Iran.

Thus — Republican talking points notwithstanding — Obama has not “wasted a year on diplomacy.”  He’s hardly wasted 24 hours on diplomacy.

If the United States continues to gives no other good options to resolve differences with Iran, but a “take it or leave it” deal, confrontation with Iran becomes the most likely outcome. These sanctions will not bring the Iranian regime to its knees, nor will they magically induce a change of heart.

Whether intended or not, immediate consequences of sanctions are most likely to impact ordinary, innocent Iranian citizens. The dearth of gasoline supplies would not only hinder their ability to heat their homes, but also interfere with the production and transportation of food and medicine. As Jamal Abdi, Policy Director for NIAC concluded:

Many lawmakers who support the politically popular “crippling” sanctions on Iran also acknowledge the failure of the sanctions-only approach of the last three decades and openly doubt sanctions will change Iran’s behavior. But instead of taking the opportunity to break this cycle, eliminate unintended consequences of existing sanctions, and stand with the people of Iran, Congress is moving forward with a bill that will ultimately impose further pain on Iranians and do more damage than good.

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