Instead Of IRPSA, How About Sanctions That Might Actually Work?

leveyVia Laura Rozen, an article about Stuart Levey, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and the various measures he’s been developing to apply pressure on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards:

While the Revolutionary Guards pretend to be the incorruptible shield of the Islamic Revolution, individual commanders are believed to be wealthy private investors, especially in neighboring countries like Dubai. “What will cause the Guards their demise is their corruption,” an Iranian intelligence official told NEWSWEEK on condition that his name not be used. “For the past 20 years, they’ve been allowed by the Supreme Leader and consecutive governments to make money in a shadowy world.” The West’s new approach, Levey indicated, is to focus on the IRGC as “the face of repression,” thereby supporting democracy activists in Iran without arousing Iranian national pride over their nuclear program.

The plan is for Levey’s office to publicly identify “dozens” of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps front companies and then pressure suppliers and trading partners to cut off ties — or risk being sanctioned by the U.S. government, says the senior administration official. “There will be a big effort by Stuart to work with like-minded countries to target IRGC front companies,” the official says. “We know which ones [the IRGC] are affiliated with and we know which ones they control.” Levey says he wants to make the foreign firms understand that “if they’re dealing with Iran it’s nearly impossible to protect themselves from being entangled in that country’s illicit conduct.”

Levey’s calibrated approach can be understood an extension of President Obama’s engagement strategy, which, even as it has been derided by hawkish conservatives as “naive,” has succeeded where the Bush administration failed in focusing international attention on the Iranian regime as the recalcitrant party, and is thus far more likely to produce the international consensus necessary for multilateral sanctions that could actually work to change the regime’s behavior. As Levey told the Senate Banking Committee in October, his goal was “to make sure that we maximize the chance of getting international support for these things because… if we do not have international support, that there’ll be diversions. There’ll be work-arounds, and the efficacy of the sanctions will not nearly be as effective.”

Contrast Levey’s approach to the huffing and puffing of Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

The regime in Tehran knows only hardball, and nothing less than overwhelming and crippling sanctions could produce a reversal of its threatening programs and policies.

That is why the United States must be prepared to act alone, if necessary, and with every weapon in its political and economic arsenal. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act [IRPSA] is one such tool. This legislation, which I coauthored, has the support of more than 300 members of the House, and it is urgent that this bill reaches the president’s desk before the end of the year. It targets one of Iran’s major weaknesses — namely, its dependency on foreign gasoline and other refined petroleum products. By placing financial sanctions on U.S. and foreign companies providing these crucial resources, Iran’s economic lifeline would be severed and its already weak economy would crumble.

There are few, if any, analysts — on either the right or left — who think that last statement is actually true. As analyst Gal Luft wrote in Foreign Policy that “Iran is much less vulnerable to gasoline sanctions than is commonly believed on Capitol Hill, and its foreign gasoline dependence is dropping by the day.” Under President Ahmadinejad, Iran has both increased its refining capacity and enacted a more effective petrol rationing program, both of which have, according to Luft, have “slashed Iran’s need to import petroleum products.” A report from the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute concluded that “the imposition of sanctions might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term,” and that “the group that should be the target of strengthened sanctions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is least likely to be affected.”

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen also writes that, in addition to IRPSA, the U.S. should also “offer our full support to the Iranian people and increase funding for Iran democracy programs.” But members of Iran’s pro-democracy Green movement have condemned the very sanctions Ros-Lehtinen is pushing for, arguing that they would hurt the Iranian while doing little to affect the regime. In an interview with the Washington Times, Iranian dissident Mohsen Makhmalbaf specifically “rejected proposed U.S. legislation that would target gasoline imports to Iran, saying that would hurt average people.” In September, Green movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi said sanctions “will impose agonies on a nation who suffers enough from miserable statesmen.” It’s hard to take seriously the claim of IRPSA proponents to support Iranian democracy activists when those activists have specifically condemned IRPSA. Not only would these sanctions be ineffective at actually changing Iran’s behavior, they would offer Iran’s hardliners a propaganda lifeline right at the moment that the conservative consensus around Ahmadinejad is starting to crack up.