In recent weeks calls to further sanction Iran for its nuclear program have been on the rise in a number of high profile op-eds, in blogs, and in rhetoric from the White House.
For example, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) recently stated that it is now time for ‘moving beyond engagement’. Berman is a key author and supporter of unilateral U.S. sanctions legislation that has passed both the House and the Senate and could be sent to President Obama’s desk for approval soon. Berman writes that the legislation will ‘impose severe penalties on companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran or support the development of Iran’s domestic refining capacity.’
David Milliband, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, said that ‘proportionate and reversible’ multilateral sanctions ‘are needed urgently’ to affect a change in Iran’s behavior. In the blogosphere, the Heritage Foundation is calling for ‘extremely strong international sanctions that would impose excruciating economic pain and threaten the regime’s continued hold on power.’ In a (sadly) similar vein, Hillary Clinton called for ‘sanctions that will bite’. Although varying in the level and form of sanctions called for, both sides of the political spectrum appear to be coalescing around the view that tougher measures are required because engagement has failed.
Yet dialogue should have always been framed as a long-term pursuit, not something that was ever going to solve problems in any immediate time-frame…
In February 2009, Norma Percy, one of the producers of the BBC’s fantastic ‘Iran and The West’ series, reminded us that engagement with Iran would not be an easy task, pointing out that ‘all previous attempts at talks between Iran and the West have ended as the dialogue of the deaf.’ After three decades of mistrust and animosity, the notion that a young and charismatic U.S president could quickly change the status quo – no matter how committed he may be to changing the American relationship with Iran – was not a realistic one.
U.S. policy, at least from the perspective of Iran, appears to suffer from a case of multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, the Obama administration has made a sincere effort to both directly and indirectly (see here and here, for example) reach out to and engage in dialogue with the Iranian regime.
Yet these overtures also come against the backdrop of Congressional efforts to impose harsh new sanctions, public White House proclamations that keep all military options on the table, and the U.S dismissing Ahmadinijad’s own ‘offers’ of engagement (here). These factors gives the upper hand to the hardliners in Iran who argue that Obama’s offers of engagement are a ‘ploy’.
Meanwhile, the Iranian leaderships’ brutal crackdown of last summer’s demonstrations against alleged electoral fraud, the revelation of Iran’s secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom, and Tehran’s rejection of an offer from the United States and its allies to ship its stock of low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment and refinement, have done little to dispel concerns in the U.S. that Iran is bent on developing nuclear weapons.
Given these developments, it is easy to see why sanctions appear to be an attractive option for U.S. policy makers at the moment. It enables them to appear proactive in responding to the current situation. However, neither unilateral or multilateral sanctions have historically achieved much success in changing Iran’s thinking, thus its hard to see what gains will result from more being imposed.
If Obama signs off on unilateral U.S. gasoline sanctions or if he is able to convince the Chinese to support a UN administered multilateral sanctions package, they will merely make future calls for negotiations seem more incredulous than ever to the Iranian leadership. In addition, there are compelling arguments which suggest that further sanctions will strengthen the regime at the expense of the Iranian people.
As Roger Cohen pointed out in the New York Times last year, ‘France and Germany fought three wars in 70 years before the bright idea dawned of enfolding their problem into something larger: the European Union. The United States and Iran have not gone to war but have a relationship of psychotic mistrust. The answer can only be the same: Broaden the context.’
This lesson of history suggests that it is essential that the U.S peg its approach to engagement to a medium and long-term strategy in the region that also covers other issues of mutual interest. Such an approach is fundamental if there is to be any hope of introducing transparency and building confidence in Washington and Tehran’s relationship.