Why sanctions against Iran won’t work

Reza Marashi writes:

To the surprise of few, new Iran sanctions legislation was recently introduced in the House and Senate, shortly before this year’s AIPAC conference commenced. In what has become a game of domestic political one-upsmanship, some members of Congress are now supporting Iran-related legislation that would effectively seek to impose an oil embargo on the Islamic Republic — irrespective of the economic costs to the U.S. or the humanitarian costs to the Iranian people — and reduce President Obama’s waiver authority on sanctions that run counter to U.S. national interests (read: China).

Ostensibly, sanctions are devised as a multi-level (unilateral and multilateral) strategy to sharpen Iran’s choices, and build tough-minded international recognition of Iran’s failure to adhere to its international obligations. In practice, political constraints at home and abroad inhibit America’s ability to move beyond tactics centered on sanctions, and instead toward a strategy that deconstructs the U.S.-Iran institutionalized enmity through sustained diplomacy. Sanctions are a tool that American policymakers know — they know how to add them, change them, intensify them, push them through Congress, and negotiate them bilaterally and at the U.N. Lesser known is how Iran perceives this paradigm that seemingly traps U.S. policy. Indeed, the logic of some in Congress (and the Obama administration) regarding what sanctions can achieve is largely misguided.

For decision-makers in Tehran, the heart of the matter is how they perceive that the West will (and will not) react to its foreign policy posturing in general and the nuclear question in particular. The Iranian narrative can be summarized as follows: Former President Mohammad Khatami’s détente failed, so Iran must now deal with the West from a position of strength. To that end, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in 2005, the Islamic Republic analyzed the finite scenarios surrounding the nuclear impasse, observed the inherent limitations of sanctions as panacea and perceived a reasonable degree of strategic flexibility over the short to medium term.

Daniel Luban writes:

Seymour Hersh’s new piece in the New Yorker has generated a fair amount of buzz, so much so that Iran hawks have quickly leaped into action to try to discredit it. Virtually none of the criticism of Hersh’s piece has actually addressed the substance of his article, however, and since the article is subscription-only, it’s possible that not many people have actually gotten a chance to read it. It may therefore be worthwhile simply to spell out what Hersh’s piece actually says.

By far the most significant revelation in the piece concerns the recently-completed 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). NIEs represent the consensus judgments of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, and as such their findings frequently have major political ramifications. The 2007 NIE was particularly important (and contested), for it concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and found no evidence that the program had resumed.

Predictably, the 2007 NIE elicited howls of outrage from hawks who have been pushing military action against Tehran, and in the years since they have constantly attempted to discredit it. It’s worth making clear, however, just what the NIE did and didn’t say. It found no evidence of an active Iranian nuclear weapons program — that is, a nuclear program with elements that had no conceivable civilian uses (e.g., nuclear warhead design). The NIE never claimed that Iran had halted its nuclear program entirely, only that none of the nuclear program’s projects were unambiguously military in scope. Thus, to point to the fact that Iran continues to enrich uranium as evidence that the 2007 NIE has been discredited, as the Iran hawks have frequently tried to do, simply misses the point; the NIE did not suggest that Iran had stopped enriching uranium.

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