5 Pitfalls for Congress' Iran Sanctions

While sanctions are a useful diplomatic instrument and congressional pressure can send an important signal that U.S. patience with Iran is not limited, now is not the time for unilateral action.
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The last few weeks have seen momentous developments with regard to Iran. With the support of 25 countries, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the IAEA voted to censure Iran for its unwillingness to be fully transparent over its nuclear ambitions. In addition, turmoil stemming from Iran's post-election crisis this summer has continued, with protests taking place on a scale not seen since the election itself.

Against this backdrop, Congress is moving rapidly to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic. While sanctions are a useful diplomatic instrument and congressional pressure can send an important signal that U.S. patience with Iran is not limited, now is not the time for unilateral action. There are daunting obstacles that could hamper the effectiveness of such an approach, in addition to there being far-reaching consequences for acting hastily. So that it can harmonize its actions with the larger strategic context, Congress should take into account the following considerations:

International support for tough stance on Iran would buckle under unilateral sanctions by the U.S. As the recent IAEA vote to censure Iran makes clear, the international position on Iran is more united than ever. But, as a recent Harvard gaming scenario concluded, this consensus could break down if the U.S. moves ahead with international sanctions. David Ignatius summarized the conclusions of the Iran scenario gamed out by the team at Harvard: "The Obama team was confounded by congressional demands for unilateral U.S. sanctions against companies involved in Iran's energy sector. This shot at Iran ended up backfiring, since some of the key companies were from Russia and China -- the very nations whose support the United States needs for strong U.N. sanctions. The Russians and Chinese were so offended that they began negotiating with Tehran behind America's back." [David Ignatius, 12/06/09] Green Movement wary of sanctions targeting Iranian people. Congressman Berman has admitted that the sanctions bill could have an impact on the average Iranian, calling it a "distasteful prospect." In a recent piece for Think Progress Matt Duss elaborated on how the Congressional sanctions would have an adverse effect on the Iranian people, particularly the Green Movement. Duss noted that "in September, Mir Hossein Mousavi said sanctions "will impose agonies on a nation who suffers enough from miserable statesmen," and how In a recent interview with the Washington Times' Barbara Slavin, Iranian dissident Mohsen Makhmalbaf "specifically rejected gasoline sanctions, "saying [they] would hurt average people." [National Journal, 11/02/09. Matt Duss, 12/03/09] American Enterprise Institute: Gasoline sanctions "might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term." The conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) concluded that Iran's efforts to prepare for the types of sanctions envisaged by congress could render them ineffective. They concluded: "It is clear that the regime has already taken into account the possibility of such sanctions and developed a plan it may think will circumvent them. If the regime has confidence in its plan--however realistic it might or might not be--then the imposition of sanctions might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term." [AEI, 10/01/09] Iran has means of circumventing sanctions not backed by international consensus. The National Journal's David Herbert wrote last month: "it's unclear whether the legislation will be enough to dissuade Iran's main suppliers -- Royal Dutch Shell, France's Total, China's state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp. and Russia's Lukoil, among others -- from continuing to import gasoline. Tehran has said it will cut off any company that complies with U.S. sanctions, a threat that will keep some companies in line. And even if some gasoline exports to Iran can be curtailed, Russia and Venezuela have the excess refining capacity to plug the gap, according to Fariborz Ghadar, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Hugo Chavez is already bringing Venezuela's considerable refining capabilities to bear: In September, Caracas pledged to supply Iran with 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day." [National Journal, 11/02/09]

Unilateral sanctions could undercut efforts to put "smart sanctions" in place. In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in October, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey expressed concern that unilateral sanctions would undermine efforts to impose 'smart sanctions' on the Iranian regime. "[N]ot only do we want to have the impact on the economy, we want to make sure that [the sanction] is going to affect the decision making in Iran and not target the wrong people in Iran and, similarly, to make sure that we maximize the chance of getting international support for these things," said Levey. USA Today reported that according to Steinberg, sanctions "are a matter of judgment and not science, and that the administration needed to decide what are the 'smart sanctions that have the biggest impact.'" [Stuart Levey, via IPS News, 10/19/09. Jim Steinberg, via USA Today, 10/06/09]

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