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December 08, 2009

Iran Sanctions -- Let's Hope Life Doesn't Imitate Simulation
Posted by David Shorr

Via Matt Duss and M.J. Rosenberg, it seems momentum may be building for Congressional legislation to pave the way for strengthened unilateral sanctions against Iran, though reports of a Senate vote Tuesday evening may end up being a false alarm. Meanwhile, stories have emerged of a role-playing simulation of the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program conducted by senior experts -- Politico's Laura Rozen gives excerpts from accounts by Gary Sick (a participant) and David Ignatius, whose WaPo column is available in its entirety. One finding: congressional support for unilateral sanctions could undermine current diplomatic efforts, which are focused on multilateral sanctions.

The key passage from the Ignatius column:

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.

Talk about unintended consequences, yikes. A united front with Russia and China is the key to keeping pressure on Iran, and losing their support at this critical juncture would be a big step backwards. In the debate over sanctions, the questions of whether, when, how, and by whom are worth untangling.

Let's start with Spencer Ackerman's excellent interview with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, which is supporting congressional sanctions legislation. Here's Jeremy giving pro-sanctions arguments that I agree with:

...we really believe that diplomacy is the right approach, but that diplomacy can’t be open-ended. Every one of our statements says we are not opposed to sanctions per se. ... We are ardently opposed to military action. We are deeply supportive of the diplomatic route. But if the diplomatic route is completely disregarded and the offer [rejected] — after probably ten or 20 warnings, they’re practically beyond saying no. They’re sticking a finger in the eye of the world. The U.S. has really tried to find a way to offer them a path to full engagement. There have to be consequences. We can’t just allow that kind of disregard of the international community.

All of which is exactly why the Obama Administration is negotiating with Russia and China at this very moment over multilateral sanctions, which would be more difficult for Iran to resist politically or practically. The name of the game indeed is to clarify the basis for diplomatic progress -- the plan for Iran to ship enriched uranium to Russia and France in exchange for nuclear fuel rods -- and insistently stand our ground together with other influential nations.

That's why I don't agree with Dokhi Fassihian and Trita Parsi (for whom I have great respect), in their assessment of President Obama's policy:

First, the time-frame was too short. Due to pressures from domestic actors as well as US allies in the region, diplomacy was given no more than 12 weeks to make measurable progress. In contrast, US sanctions on Iran have been given more than 20 years to work, and are yet to produce tangible results.

The pressures that dictate this time-frame have to do with Iran's technological progress and keeping Iran from dragging the diplomatic process out. Now that the uranium deal is on the table, there's no necessity of more time; Iran should accept and implement the deal that's on offer.

Another problem with the legislation, alluded to in the above Ignatius quote, is the type of measures (refined petrolium) of the sanctions it focuses. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressed earlier this fall, there menu of sanctions options is a "pretty rich list to pick from," beyond energy sector measures to which China is highly likely to object.

Returning to Spencer's interview, I hope Jeremy is right that congress is merely strengthening the president's hand by playing bad cop. At both the international and domestic political levels, brinksmanship must be conducted with care.


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