National Security Network

Smart, Strategic Diplomacy Needed with Iran

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Report 29 October 2009

Iran Iran iran Obama Administration US US-Iran negotiations


As international negotiations continue with Iran over its nuclear program, lawmakers in Washington have introduced several pieces of legislation to implement significant unilateral sanctions. But while some argue that the threat of increased sanctions will strengthen the Obama administrations diplomatic hand, the advancement of such sanctions is not a zero cost game and may even have the opposite effect. The strategic approach that the administration has pursued on Iran, where it has implemented smart sanctions alongside effective multilateral diplomacy buttressed by effective communication with the Iranian people - will be affected by any Congressional action on sanctions.  Policy makers must be careful to ensure that such moves will not undermine the President and the current state of diplomacy with Iran.  

It's therefore essential that the imposition of significant sanctions at this time not be perceived as a cost-free policy.  Potential negative consequences range from bolstering support for the Iranian regime among its people, to inducing hostile Iranian action towards American interests in the region, to feeding regional anxieties and insecurity. They may also undercut the President's carefully crafted, multilateral diplomacy, by advancing unilateral sanctions that offend our allies in Europe and rebuff China, whose participation in this process is essential to success.  If such sanctions are to proceed, they must be couched in international legitimacy and complementary to the president’s diplomacy.
Congressional focus on Iran is necessary, but should not tie the President’s hands.  Congressional focus on Iran is an asset for the U.S., particularly as it engages in tough negotiations with the Iranians.  But as Congress moves forward, it must be mindful to avoid tying the President’s hands.  In recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said that “[s]trong congressional interest” in Iran “extremely valuable” to U.S. efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program.  At the same time, he emphasized the importance of any legislative effort to maximize the ability of the U.S. “to pursue this two track strategy to convince Iran to meet its obligations while preserving the president's flexibility to carry out the strategy successfully.” Iran expert Suzanne Maloney cautioned against sanctions at this juncture: “I don't think it is a particular asset to American diplomacy... These measures I think only create the prospect for the administration to be working against itself."  Moving forward with sanctions before negotiations are resolved could also preclude forming an international consensus behind U.S. policy toward Iran according to CFR expert Ray Takeyh: “For sanctions to work, they not only have to be multilateral, but there has to be international solidarity over a prolonged period of time.” Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey echoed this sentiment, saying “[i]f we do not have international support, there'll be diversions.” [Jim Steinberg, 10/06/09. Suzanne Maloney via AFP, 10/18/09. Ray Takeyh via NY Times, 9/27/09. Stuart Levey, via IPS News Agency, 10/19/09]

As diplomacy with Iran develops, Congressional action threatens to put the cart before the horse.  The Washington Post reports, that Iran, “said the provision of fuel for a Tehran research reactor was an opportunity for Iran to evaluate the ‘honesty’ of world powers and the U.N. nuclear agency watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Later in the day Iran was expected to present its formal response to a U.N.-drafted nuclear fuel deal which is meant to help ease tension over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. Iranian media say the Islamic Republic will accept the framework of the deal but demand changes to it.”

The Obama administration has not yet come to a judgment about the appropriate sanctions to implement if talks fail, as the result of these talks is still unclear. For example, Stuart Levey, Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, recently told the Senate Banking Committee that "I think we have not reached a judgment as to which [sanctions] might be the most effective.”

Despite this, and before we know the details of the situation, Congress is moving ahead with sanctions bills.  The AP reported yesterday that, “A bill that would tighten U.S. sanctions against the export of refined petroleum products to Iran was approved overwhelmingly Wednesday by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”  On the other side of the Hill, Senator Chris Dodd’s (D-CT), “Senate Banking Committee plans to vote Thursday on legislation that would strengthen sanctions against Iran and the companies that do business with the state. Lawmakers are targeting the energy sector as part of a concerted effort to pressure Tehran to halt the country's uranium enrichment program... Dodd's bill would expand the existing Iran Sanctions Act to cover a broader range of financial institutions and extend sanctions to oil and gas pipelines, tankers and the petroleum export supply chain.” [Washington Post, 10/29/09.  AP, 10/28/09.  WS Journal, 10/26/09. Stuart Levey, via IPS, 10/19/09]
Establishing additional significant sanctions now against Iran is not without potential cost to U.S. security interests. Sanctions can be a useful tool for imposing costs on dangerous behavior, but in the case of Iran, they are not without potential cost.

  • Sanctions may bolster support for the Iranian regime.  According to the IPS News Agency, at recent testimony before congress, both Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, and Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey agreed “that sanctions affecting the general population could actually strengthen popular support for the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose credibility at home was badly damaged by June's disputed election and its violent aftermath.” [IPS News Agency, 10/19/09]
  • Sanctions may induce hostility, not compliance, from Iran, with negative consequences for U.S. interests. Last year, Iran experts Ray Takeyh and Suzanne Maloney wrote that Iran now has the ability to “influence all the region’s security dilemmas,” creating instability in critical areas like Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Georgetown University professor Daniel Brumberg said to AFP that Iran could view sanctions “as a hostile act designed to undermine the regime and would become even more defiant,” with serious consequences for U.S. interests. [Ray Takeyh and Suzanne Maloney, 12/08. Daniel Brumberg via AFP, 10/18/09]
  • Effects of sanctions could be disproportionately felt by the Iranian people. Sanctions run the risk of negatively impacting the Iranian people, rather than the regime.  Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, recently said "[s]anctions would not affect the government but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers…” [Mir Hossein Mousavi, via the Washington Post, 10/01/09]

What We’re Reading

President Obama is seeking an analysis on the efficacy of local provincial leaders in Afghanistan, to see how to augment their efforts with US resources. Following the attack that left 5 UN workers dead in Kabul, aid programs are put at risk as aid distributors debate incorporating highly restrictive security measures for their employees. And back in Washington, bipartisan criticism grows about reports that the CIA may have paid Hamid Karzai’s brother, who is under suspicion for having ties to the drug trade in Afghanistan.
The American government has offered military assistance to the Pakistani Army as they continue their offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds in South Waziristan.
An internal report by the inspector general of the Interior Ministry of Iraq indicated a pervasive level of corruption, from negligent high officials to soldiers manning checkpoints while at the same time taking bribes, as the investigation of the recent bombings in Baghdad continues. Meanwhile, deadlock in Parliament over an election law stems from a disagreement over which voter registration records will be used to hold elections in oil-rich, Kirkuk, with Kurds threatening to boycott any election if the most recent voter registration records are not adopted.
Military planners want to continue studying countermeasures for IEDs, as they fear the use of IEDs has greatly expanded beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although Congo’s army has driven guerilla fighters off of various diamond mines, human rights advocates fear the army is consolidating control of the mines for themselves and not offering better working and living conditions for the miners.
A massacre of Columbians in Venezuela has caused accusations and counteraccusations between Columbian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Former Filipino President Joseph Estrada has used a movie career to resurrect his political aspirations.
Convicted of profiting from illicit arms sales to Angola, former French interior minister Charles Pasqua is roiling France by accusing other officials of knowing about the deal and demanding that the government open secret files to prove him right.

Commentary of the Day

Victor Sebestyen discusses transcripts of Soviet military officials in Afghanistan during the 1980’s and demonstrates their striking similarity to the tactical deliberation being conducted right now by the US military.
Najim Abed al-Jabouri explains how Iraqi Security Forces continue to suffer from overwhelming politicization, and how they can build better ties to Iraqis by adopting the counterinsurgency tactics used by American soldiers.
The Washington Post denounces the impunity of gunman in Russia who kill prominent government critics and put the blame squarely I would say “on the shoulders” of Russian government officials.