By Usha Sahay
May 21, 2013
It’s getting hot and humid here in D.C., and it looks like we’re kicking off a long, hot summer of new Iran sanctions. On Wednesday, May 22, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will mark up the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act. The new bill expands already stringent sanctions on Iran by tightening human rights sanctions and increasing restrictions on trade, moving toward a “de facto commercial embargo” on Iran. The final version may also incorporate the Iran Sanctions Loophole Elimination Act, a Senate measure that seeks to block Iran’s access to its currency reserves overseas.
And in a few weeks, we’ll probably see a full-fledged sanctions bill on the Senate side as well. Based on preliminary drafts of a bill being drafted by Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill), the Senate will look to tighten restrictions in basically every area, including shipping, mining, engineering, and construction, while cracking down on third parties facilitating transactions with Iran. The bill even seeks to eliminate US funding of organizations like UNICEF and UN Habitat because Iran sits on those groups’ governing boards.
According to Kate Gould of FCNL, Kirk’s bill “lays out a dizzying array of sanctions” against a variety of actors, which has prompted some Senate staffers to describe the measure as the “kitchen sink.”
The new sanctions bonanza seems focused only on further pressuring Iran’s economy, despite little indication that anything is coming of this pressure. In fact, the push for new sanctions comes at an especially odd time given that expert opinion is clearly turning against more sanctions.
In recent months, a growing chorus of analysts and former officials have started to argue not simply that sanctions aren’t helping to move us forward on the Iran issue – but that they’re actually pushing us back. The Iran Project’s latest report, with signatories including Leslie Gelb, Tom Pickering, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jim Dobbins, criticizes the current Iran policy for relying too heavily on sanctions, without integrating those sanctions into a broader plan for cooperation. The report argues that “a point of optimal pressure has been reached” with Iran, and that adding more pressure at this point could be counterproductive. Yet if the plans in the House and Senate are any indication, Congress seems to be out of ideas for anything other than more pressure.
The White House seems to agree that sanctions have reached the height of their effectiveness. In April, Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with his former Senate colleagues to let the existing sanctions do their job, instead of passing more: “…for the moment, I think you need to leave us the window to try to work the diplomatic channel.” What this really means is that there’s starting to be a tension between sanctions and diplomacy – two things that were initially supposed to go together. Now, sanctions have become so numerous, and so hard to unravel, that they’re making us appear unserious about the next steps in the process – unraveling the sanctions and focusing on cooperation and diplomacy.
In other words, the person in charge of US diplomacy is telling Congress that their new sanctions are tanking US diplomacy. Yet the sanctions train appears to be rolling on.
The danger is not that the new sanctions will be game-changers that push us towards a major confrontation with Iran (although that is possible). What is more worrisome – and more likely with each new penalty that’s passed – is that Iran will eventually settle into a ‘new normal,’ accepting that sanctions are never going away, so negotiations are a waste of time. In other words, sanctions risk locking us into a very undesirable status quo.
And that isn’t the only thing to be worried about. One of the Iran Project’s key criticisms is that US strategy has focused on pressure without figuring out realistic ways to ease that pressure – a problem that’s could get even worse if Kirk introduces his “kitchen sink” bill. In addition to piling on additional sanctions, the bill is looking to add something qualitatively new: a “sunset certification” stipulating that sanctions cannot be lifted until “the Government of Iran has released all political prisoners, is transitioning to a free and democratically elected government, and is protecting the rights and freedoms of all citizens of Iran, including women and minorities.”
Such a provision would make it even more difficult to lift sanctions than it already is – and it’s already pretty darn difficult. The Iran Sanctions Act, which has been in place in one form or another since 1996, cannot terminate until the President certifies that “that Iran has ceased its efforts to acquire WMD; is removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism; and no longer ‘poses a significant threat’ to U.S. national security and U.S. allies.” [pdf]
I’m reminded of the famous Voltaire quote: “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.” The line translates roughly into the aphorism “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Congress may want to keep Voltaire’s warning in mind as they consider Kirk’s proposal, which, by demanding a “perfect” resolution right off the bat, could kill the prospects for a “good” one.
Kirk’s sunset provision basically demands a perfect ending to the Iranian controversy. Let’s be clear: Iran’s government won’t start protecting its citizens’ rights, or moving toward democracy, anytime soon, nor is it likely to cut off ties with terrorist groups. , And the certification required by the Iran Sanctions Act is just as much of a pipe dream. as Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council has pointed out, there’s an institutionalized hostility between the US and Iran. It’s a hostility that’s quite literally written into the law: in 1995, Bill Clinton declared a state of emergency with respect to U.S.-Iran relations, and that state of emergency is renewed by the administration every March.
This means that the Kirk bill would make sanctions on Iran nearly impossible to lift. If we can’t offer Iran the reward it wants – an end to sanctions – if and when it agrees to limit its nuclear program, Iran will never do it. In other words, demanding “perfect” kills the chances of getting something “good.”
Take a simple analogy. If your child won’t clean her room, you might take away her TV privileges. If she still won’t do it, would you then decide then that she can’t have TV back until she cleans her room, takes better care of all of her toys, stops fighting with the kids next door, and promises to never talk back to you again?
And if you did, would you be surprised that the room never gets clean?
The kid would learn to live without TV. You just made getting it back so difficult that it’s not worth cooperating on the original issue.
I don’t mean to make a flippant comparison. My point is simply that there is an incredibly simple, but fatal, flaw in the game theory that we’re applying here. With Iran’s economy suffering, sanctions relief is the best card we have to play to attain cooperation on the nuclear issue. But when we attach tough sunset conditions to our sanctions, we limit our ability to play that card. And the sunset provision in the Kirk bill basically takes the card, locks it in a safe, and throws away the key.
At a time when experts such as the Iran Project signatories are vigorously urging the US to increase its leverage by outlining ways to dismantle the complex “spider web” of sanctions currently in place, the new sanctions bills in the House and Senate represent a significant step backward, and would put the US in a considerably tougher position.
I find myself thinking back to a quote from someone who hasn’t exactly been a role model for me when it comes to Middle East policy: George W. Bush. In 2004, asked about Iran, Bush said, “we’ve sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran . . . we don’t have much leverage with the Iranians right now.” (emphasis my own). Bush’s comment alludes to the existence of a tipping point after which sanctions become useless because living with them is easier than trying to claw your way out of them. And the new provision in the Kirk bill, which seeks a perfect outcome right off the bat, makes clawing out that much harder. For Tehran, defiantly ignoring the US becomes even more appealing than it already is.
George Bush was no Voltaire, but on this one, he just might be right.