Say no to sanctions on Iran. Reason #1: They won’t work

Since the disputed Iranian presidential election, the idea of passing sanctions to stop gas imports to Iran has been gaining momentum. The Obama administration has not yet had the opportunity to engage Iran on the nuclear issue, yet some politicians and pundits are hyping inaccurate information about Iran’s nuclear program and claiming we must use “sticks” like sanctions to force Iran to abandon nuclear enrichment. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act has 295 cosponsors in the House and 73 in the Senate, and a nationwide campaign to pass sanctions against Iran will kick off in September. Congress is threatening a vote on the sanctions of Iran does not come to the table for negotiation by late September. This week, I’ll be writing a series on Groundswell covering some of the many reasons why we must ramp up our efforts to oppose sanctions.

Supposedly, the primary idea behind enacting harsh sanctions against Iran is that putting a squeeze on the Iranian economy would pressure the government to end its nuclear enrichment program and change other behaviors unpalatable to the United States. After thirty years of sanctions and isolation, we have yet another example of Congress wanting to double down on a failed strategy rather than taking a more enlightened approach. As Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council noted recently, “Even if the sanctions were effective in harming the Iranian economy, there isn’t a single historical example of economic sanctions translating into a desirable change in the Iranian government’s behavior. Just as the hardliners are resisting their people’s calls for change, so too will they refuse to be seen as capitulating to the demands of the West.”

Some would argue that the existing sanctions just aren’t painful enough, and we need to hit the Iranian government where it hurts. Despite its vast oil resources, Iran lacks refining capacity and currently imports about 40% of its gas. But as Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council noted in testimony to the House Financial Services Committee, we are at the point of diminishing returns when it comes to sanctions against Iran:

The Iranian government’s success in circumventing sanctions has made Iran less sensitive to new sanctions. There is a diminishing return on additional sanctions. By now, the threat of new sanctions on Iran is even more unlikely to compel Iran to change its behavior. Indeed, the last few years of UN Security Council sanctions and financial sanctions have not changed Iran’s nuclear course in the slightest. In December 2004, President George Bush recognized this when he said “We’ve sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran. In other words, we don’t have much leverage with the Iranians right now.”

Paradoxically, by cutting Iran’s access to American trade and investments, we have made the Iranians less sensitive to threats or implementation of additional measures to further deprive them of such access.

Regarding sanctioning gas imports in particular, even Ed Morse and Michael Makovsky, who were both involved in a disconcerting bipartisan report on Iran, note how easily Iran could circumvent the sanctions, especially if the US does not have the support of the international community:

Placing aside the issue that the U.S. government has not consistently and aggressively enforced the current iteration of the Iran Sanctions Act, ramping it up to limit Iran’s gasoline imports is unlikely to have a significant impact on the country. Through rationing and expanding its capability to refine natural gas into gasoline, Iran has managed since June 2007 to reduce its gasoline imports from 40 percent of total domestic consumption to 25-30 percent without undue political fallout. This lowers the potential political cost to Tehran of a sharp reduction in gasoline imports.

Moreover, with so many gasoline suppliers in the world–including Russia and China, over which the United States has limited leverage–it would be difficult to enforce any embargo short of a military-backed blockade. While refining capacity has been tight globally in recent years, South and East Asia alone are adding 2.5 million barrels/day of new refining capacity this year at a time when global demand is falling by 2 million barrels/day.

One of the fundamental problems in the US approach to Iran has been its lack of understanding of Iran’s internal political dynamics. After decades of tension and suspicion (often legitimate) of US interference in Iran’s affairs, the Iranian government is highly unlikely to respond to a belligerent policy that treats Iran as an errant child rather than a peer who deserves respect. More of the same hostility is not going to suddenly convince Iran to change its behavior; in fact, it feeds the rhetoric of the Iranian regime that the US is trying to undermine its sovereignty and treating it with disdain.

The fact that there is very little evidence that this approach would be effective should be enough to stop it in its tracks. However, many will cling to the possibility of success in an attempt to be tough on Iran. In my next posts, I’ll cover other reasons why this approach will not only be ineffective, but will be counterproductive and have more negative impacts than potential benefits.

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