Iran Sanctions: Too Much, Too Soon

Here comes the Obama administration's year-end deadline for Iran to comply with its nuclear demands, and the drumbeat for ramping up U.S. sanctions is growing in Washington. House leaders decided last week to move ahead with their proposal for far-reaching sanctions. Then this week the Senate leadership fast-tracked its own bill sanctioning companies engaged in the development, production, or export of Iranian petroleum. The idea is to target the Iranian people so that, in their misery, they'll press their government to change course on nuclear negotiations.

The catch? Even many House supporters of the bill doubt the efficacy of the proposal, as the bill's author hinted when he called it the "fourth best option" for stopping Iran's nuclear buildup. When the deadline passes, congressmen want to act immediately and alone. But sanctions applied broadly, unilaterally, and before diplomatic overtures have been exhausted tend to backfire, as seen in places like Cuba, Iraq, and Gaza. As Stephen Walt points out, rather than weakening the regime and convincing it to stop its nuclear program, these sanctions could feed the Iranian government's narrative that any challenge to their authority is foreign-based. Why, then, would congressmen propose the bill in the first place? Simply, reputation: they reasoned they were playing bad cop to the Administration's good cop, according to Lara Friedman, who has been tracking the developments with Americans for Peace Now. Either way, it seemed like a risk-free strategy at the time, since the Senate was not expected to advance its version of the bill.

A more sensible plan would be the program suggested by the Obama administration--targeted and multilateral sanctions in 2010, after the administration's deadline for diplomatic overtures has passed (and after persuading reluctant partners like Turkey, they hope). "Not only is a sanction more effective when [it's] broad-based, but it also takes away the political argument that the Iranian government may try to make, which is that this is American hostility," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Senate back in October. Surgical programs are best performed with a scalpel, not a chainshaw.