National Security Network

On Iran, Stick to the Strategy

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Report 9 December 2009

Iran Iran iran Obama sanctions


The last few weeks have witnessed significant developments related to Iran.  Against this backdrop, The Obama administration’s diplomatic engagement strategy to both ramp up the pressure on and assess progress with Iran by the end of the year has continued to move forward effectively.  This was in evidence when 25 countries, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, voted to support censure of Iran at the IAEA for its unwillingness to be fully transparent over its nuclear ambitions. In addition, instability stemming from Iran’s post-election crisis this summer has continued, with protests taking place on a scale not seen since the election itself.  .  Yet despite this dynamic situation, Congress is moving swiftly to impose unilateral sanctions on the Islamic Republic.  While sanctions can serve as a useful diplomatic instrument and congressional pressure can send an important signal that U.S. patience with Iran is limited, moving forward with unilateral sanctions at this time may create more problems than solutions on this thorny issue.  

The Obama administration has carefully crafted a multilateral diplomatic strategy for ramping up the global pressure on Iran, and moving ahead with unilateral sanctions could potentially undercut U.S. diplomacy and the President’s strategy at this sensitive moment.  It may do this by weakening international cooperation on Iran and imperiling smart sanctions that are already in place. It could also potentially cause unnecessary hardship for the Iranian people, particularly the Green movement that is now challenging the regime.  In addition, expert testimony reveals that Iran is likely able to withstand the sanctions currently being considered by Congress.  Going forward, it is critical that Congress take actions to pressure Iran that are aligned both with the President’s overall strategy and that have the full support of the international community.  

As Iranian government is cracking down and engagement strategy is vindicated, Congress moves forward with unilateral sanctions legislation.  

IAEA Censure.  Late last month the International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear program, calling on Iran to the halt uranium enrichment. Laura Rozen describes how this vindicates the White House’s strategy of engagement saying that, “the White House was able to show some of the first concrete results in today's 25-3 vote at the IAEA today censuring Iran over failing to disclose its Qom enrichment until this past September. The resolution was hailed by the White House and won praise from the Israeli government, which has previously expressed skepticism that much can be gained from trying to engage Iran... Even if its efforts to engage Iran directly over its nuclear program fail to ultimately win Iran's cooperation, today's vote helps the Obama administration make the case that those efforts have helped demonstrate to key members of the international community, notably Russia and China, that the U.S. is doing everything it can to work the Iran issue diplomatically in consultation with them, non-proliferation experts noted.” [Laura Rozen, 11/27/09]

Regime cracks down on protesters. This week there were crackdowns on protesters by government forces in Iran.  The Associated Press reports that “Witnesses say security forces and pro-government militiamen with batons and tear gas are clashing with thousands of opposition protesters outside Tehran University on a day of planned student demonstrations. The witnesses say Basiji militiamen waded into the crowds of protesters, beating men and women on the heads and shoulders with batons, while security forces fired tear gas.” And United Press International reports that “Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and lead opposition candidate for president in June, was barred from attending protests Monday. A group of men, some of them masked, confronted him outside his office Tuesday, chanting slogans supporting the government.” [Associated Press, 12/7/09. UPI, 12/8/09]

Congress is moving ahead with unilateral, extraterritorial sanctions legislation. In the House of Representatives, legislation that would place unilateral and extraterritorial sanctions on Iranian gasoline is working its way to the floor.  Politico reports, “House Democratic leaders are planning to move forward with a bill imposing tough new sanctions on Iran before the holiday recess, according to Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the bill’s author.  The legislation seeks to cut supplies of refined petroleum products, especially gasoline, into Iran as a means of convincing that regime to end its nuclear weapons programs. Additional sanctions would be imposed on foreign exchange, banking and property transactions, including any organization that does business with the Central Bank of Iran.”  Similar action is taking place in Senate.  Yesterday, Matt Duss at Think Progress wrote that, “Americans for Peace Now’s Lara Friedman reports that an Iran sanctions bill looks likely to pass sooner rather than later: ‘Today, at around noon, Senate leadership hotlined the bill. Meaning that barring any objections, the bill will be brought to the floor and passed without debate, without amendment, and without a roll-call vote... Barring that, it looks very possible that IRPSA, in some form, could become law before the end of the year…”  [Politico, 12/3/09. Think Progress, 12/8/09]

There is a broad consensus that unilateral sanctions on Iran at this time will be ineffective, even counterproductive. 

International support for tough a stance on Iran would buckle under unilateral sanctions by the U.S. As the recent IAEA vote to censure Iran makes clear, the international position on Iran is more united than ever.  But, as a recent Harvard gaming scenario concluded, this consensus could break down if the U.S. moves ahead with international sanctions.  David Ignatius summarized the conclusions of the Iran scenario gamed out by the team at Harvard: “The Obama team was confounded by congressional demands for unilateral U.S. sanctions against companies involved in Iran's energy sector. This shot at Iran ended up backfiring, since some of the key companies were from Russia and China -- the very nations whose support the United States needs for strong U.N. sanctions. The Russians and Chinese were so offended that they began negotiating with Tehran behind America's back.” [David Ignatius, 12/06/09]

Green Movement is wary of sanctions targeting the Iranian people.  Congressman Berman has admitted that his sanctions bill could have an impact on the average Iranian, calling it a “distasteful prospect.”  In a recent piece for Think Progress, Matt Duss elaborated on how the congressional sanctions would have an adverse effect on the Iranian people, particularly the Green Movement. Duss noted that “in September, Mir Hossein Mousavi said sanctions “will impose agonies on a nation who suffers enough from miserable statesmen,” and how In a recent interview with the Washington Times’ Barbara Slavin, Iranian dissident Mohsen Makhmalbaf “specifically rejected gasoline sanctions, “saying [they] would hurt average people.” [National Journal, 11/02/09. Matt Duss, 12/03/09]

American Enterprise Institute: Gasoline sanctions “might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term.” The conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) concluded that Iran’s efforts to prepare for the types of sanctions envisaged by Congress could render them ineffective.  They concluded: “It is clear that the regime has already taken into account the possibility of such sanctions and developed a plan it may think will circumvent them.  If the regime has confidence in its plan—however realistic it might or might not be—then the imposition of sanctions might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term.” [AEI, 10/01/09]

Iran has the means to circumvent sanctions not backed by international consensus.  The National Journal’s David Herbert wrote last month: “it's unclear whether the legislation will be enough to dissuade Iran's main suppliers -- Royal Dutch Shell, France's Total, China's state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp. and Russia's Lukoil, among others -- from continuing to import gasoline. Tehran has said it will cut off any company that complies with U.S. sanctions, a threat that will keep some companies in line. And even if some gasoline exports to Iran can be curtailed, Russia and Venezuela have the excess refining capacity to plug the gap, according to Fariborz Ghadar, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Hugo Chavez is already bringing Venezuela's considerable refining capabilities to bear: In September, Caracas pledged to supply Iran with 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day.” [National Journal, 11/02/09]

Unilateral sanctions could undercut efforts to put “smart sanctions” in place.  In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in October, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey expressed concern that unilateral sanctions would undermine efforts to impose ‘smart sanctions’ on the Iranian regime.  “[N]ot only do we want to have the impact on the economy, we want to make sure that [the sanction] is going to affect the decision making in Iran and not target the wrong people in Iran and, similarly, to make sure that we maximize the chance of getting international support for these things,” said Levey.  USA Today reported that according to Steinberg, sanctions “are a matter of judgment and not science, and that the administration needed to decide what are the ‘smart sanctions that have the biggest impact.’” [Stuart Levey, via IPS News, 10/19/09. Jim Steinberg, via USA Today, 10/06/09]

Sanctions must fit within the President’s strategic approach. In the current issue of Arms Control Today Jim Walsh, Thomas Pickering, and William Luers argue that for sanctions to be effective, the must be part of the overall strategy, lest they have unintended adverse consequences.  They write, that “Although sanctions can be an effective policy instrument, they are only that: an instrument or tactic for achieving a goal. Given their track record, new sanctions are hardly the tactic one would rush to as a promising choice. More importantly, by narrowly focusing on a tactic rather than the strategic objective, there is the risk that policymakers will produce the very thing they seek to prevent: an Iran with nuclear weapons… The real danger is that a myopic focus on new sanctions will backfire. Sanctions can be a complement to negotiation when they give a country an incentive to bargain. Unfortunately, they can also be a roadblock to negotiations. It would be tragic indeed if, in the rush to pile on more sanctions, an opportunity to achieve the strategic objective, an Iran without nuclear weapons, was lost.”

In a recent interview with Middle East Progress, Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, explained how the Obama administration’s engagement policy has positioned the U.S. to lobby for effective, internationally backed pressure on Iran.  He said, “In contrast to the Bush administration, I think the Europeans, and even the Russians and Chinese, recognize that since Obama’s inauguration last June the United States has made numerous overtures to Iran, made a good-faith diplomatic effort to change the tone and context of the U.S.-Iran relationship, but Tehran was either unable or unwilling to reciprocate. For this reason the Obama administration is in a much better position to attain a robust international sanctions regime than the Bush administration was.” Sadjadpour also warned how a misstep could have broader consequences for key U.S. interests, saying in a recent CNN interview, “the Obama administration is desperately trying to stabilize the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the last thing they want to do is escalate toward Iran, which shares borders with both Afghanistan and Iraq.” [Jim Walsh, Thomas Pickering, and William Luers, Arms Control Today, Dec. 2009. Karim Sadjadpour, Interview with Middle East Bulletin, 12/8/09. Karim Sadjadpour, CNN Interview, 11/30/09]

What We’re Reading

Afghan President Hamid Karzai believes his nation’s army will be able to operate without foreign assistance by 2024. In Congressional testimony, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and General Stanley A. McChrystal assured Congress that President Obama’s new Afghan strategy will provide demonstrable gains before the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Also, the State Department plans to seek new bids to protect the US Embassy in Kabul after the current firm  ran into staffing and oversight problems
Pakistan’s main anticorruption agency released a report documenting that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari holds $1.5 billion in assets across the world.  
The Transportation Security Administration inadvertently posted a document outlining previously used airport passenger screening practices.
The Obama administration has decided to opt out of a global monitoring system for biological weapons in lieu of its own biological threat strategy, which is to be revealed today.
Human Rights Watch has released a report alleging a sharp rise in extrajudicial killing in Brazil by police forces battling drug-trafficking gangs.
President Obama’s special envoy to North Korea, Stephen W. Bosworth, has arrived in Pyongyang.
Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told the Japanese media that talks with the U.S. on relocating the U.S. Marine air station on the island of Okinawa have been suspended.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for tolerance among native French people toward Muslim immigrants, but warned that arriving Muslims must embrace Europe's historical values and avoid "ostentation or provocation" in the practice of their religion.
Polls in Israel show that a majority of citizens favor a trade with Hamas of Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldier Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times notes the incongruity of not allowing people on “terror watch” lists to board planes, but allowing them to purchase guns, and urges Congress to address this “terror gap”.
Glen MacDonald argues that while emails from climate scientists suggesting data manipulation does give cause for concern for the rigors of their research, this particular episode cannot overshadow the decades of scientific evidence of the human causes of climate change.