Throwing Yourself in the Way: Gasoline Sanctions and Iran

Two recent events allow reason for hope for the future of U.S. policy towards Iran. First, the State Department recently issued a recommendation that the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) allow the export of free mass-market communications software to Iran. The proposed modifications to current sanctions will help facilitate the free flow of information into and out of Iran. Second, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA) was introduced in the House of Representatives. IDEA would modify OFAC's regulations in a manner similar to the State Department's recommendation. These events are welcome signs to proponents of the United States taking a greater interest in the plight of the Iranian people. However, there is still a great deal more that needs to be done. This is especially true of current sanctions against Iran.

The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), which passed the House of Representatives before Christmas, expands the broad-based sanctions already in place against Iran. The bill seeks to limit Iran's access to refined petroleum products, which include gasoline and heating oil, as a means of pressuring the government to relinquish its nuclear enrichment program. IRPSA is not only unlikely to succeed but will cause significant collateral damage.

The leaders of Iran's government and military will not be affected by a reduction in gasoline imports, and, therefore, will not feel any pressure to halt enrichment. During the 1990s, a common axiom among experts on U.S. sanctions against Iraq was that "Saddam will eat the last sandwich in Baghdad." It is certain that neither vehicles in Khamenei's motorcade nor the military will want for gasoline if IRPSA is in fact successful in blocking petroleum imports by Iran. The leaders of non-democratic governments are able to insulate themselves, and their supporters, from the negative consequences of U.S. sanctions.

In point of fact, the Iranian leadership is itself looking for an excuse to cut government subsidies for gasoline. The Islamic Republic spends billions a year providing gasoline subsidies to its citizens; billions that it cannot afford. However, cutting the amount of free gasoline allowed to each citizen will cause widespread resentment and anger within the population of Iran directed towards the Iranian government. U.S. petroleum sanctions will provide the Iranian leadership with the perfect scapegoat when they cut gas subsidies. The United States should permit refined petroleum exportation to Iran to continue, and allow the Iranian government to reap the public consequences when it cuts subsidies. Tehran is about to shoot itself in the foot, and Washington is throwing itself in the way of the bullet. Many members of Congress apparently view sanctions as punitive measurements to be imposed when another country is doing something that the United States does not like. The imposition and enforcement of sanctions and their continuance or easing are a type of dialogue between countries. The form, severity and enforcement of a sanctions regime send important messages to both the government and population of the target country. When sanctions are imposed but not enforced the targeted government will view sanctions as a paper tiger designed to appease special interest groups or U.S. voters. They will not be viewed as representative of the sender government's policy. In addition, the reason sanctions are imposed sends an important message; i.e. the United States disapproves of uranium enrichment, but is not really concerned with human rights abuses in Iran. Finally, when sanctions are largely detrimental to a population, people will quite reasonably assume that the sending country is not friendly to them.

If the current broad-based sanctions are unlikely to work, what can Congress do instead? Targeted sanctions offer a way forward. They are penalties that target, harm and send unambiguous messages to the Islamic Republic's rulers, while avoiding injury to average Iranian citizens, who, after all, did not actually elect their government. For example, why compromise the Iranian citizens' access to heating oil for their homes, as IRPSA will do, when restricting the Iranian leadership's access to overseas bank accounts, as well as its ability to form overseas business contracts, provides a more precise and appropriate sanction and message?

Sanctions should be thought of as economic warfare, in which case it follows that every effort must be made to reduce the amount of collateral damage they inflict. Modern sentiment holds that civilian casualties in a conventional war must be avoided. The U.S. military has spent decades and untold billions of dollars developing "smart" weapons for the exact purpose of avoiding killing civilians (the success of that program is beside the point, the intent is the important part). It is time for U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic policy to embrace this ideal and to follow suit. Broad-based sanctions are to economic warfare what indiscriminate carpet-bombing is to conventional warfare. They produce massive civilian "casualties." In the case of Iran, this will only serve to further the interests of the hardliners in Iran's government and military.

The U.S. government needs to be very careful when choosing what type of sanctions it imposes on the government of Iran. IRPSA is unlikely to affect the leadership in Tehran. It is very likely, however, to have a negative effect on the lives of ordinary Iranians many of whom clearly dislike their government. Despite language professing the U.S. Congress' feelings of friendship for the people's of Iran, the message that is actually sent by IRPSA was well summed up by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH): "We like you so much that we're going to cut off your heating oil." Conversely, instituting sanctions that specifically target the Iranian leadership would send the message that the United States is an ally of the Iranian people, and still opposes their repressive, authoritarian government.