Sanctions Bill Will Undercut Growing International Consensus on Iran

The Times of London, which has a spotty record in much of its reporting, claims to have obtained documents indicating that Iran may have begun working on a nuclear weapon as early as 2007. The widely respected David Albright, former inspector for the IAEA, was quoted saying that if the story is true than it “It looks bad — there is no doubt about it.” If confirmed, this story should strengthen the Administration’s efforts to build a coordinated international sanctions regime in response to Iran. Unfortunately, there is every likelihood that this report will be used by leaders on the Hill to push through a counterproductive sanctions bill that, instead of strengthening international resolve, will weaken it.

In the midst of its efforts to engage Iran, the Administration has been working simultaneously to build a unified international approach toward Iran – something that was sorely lacking during the Bush administration. These efforts appear to have paid dividends, as there now exists a pretty clear consensus between the US and Europe on dealing with Iran and there is even some mild optimism that Russia may support come on board as well. In the last week the European Union, France, the UK and the Obama administration all released nearly identical statements on Iran. Additionally, last month 25 countries, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council voted to censure Iran at the IAEA for its lack of transparency on the nuclear issue. In an interview with the Middle East Bulletin, Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, noted:

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.

Despite the formation of a multilateral consensus, the US Congress now seems determined to screw things up by imposing unilateral sanctions. The sanctions bills marauding through the House and Senate threaten to undercut this international consensus. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius who participated in an Iran gaming scenario game put on by Harvard reached this conclusion as well:

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.

One of the chief problems with the effort by Congress is that for sanctions on Iran to be effective they have to have broad international backing, because the US on its own does not have enough leverage to make much of an impact. David Herbert of the National Journal described one of the major problems with Congress’ efforts to put in place gasoline sanctions 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.

In other words, the sanctions bills pushed by Congress will likely backfire. Not only will they undercut the Green Movement, as Matt Duss notes, but by upsetting the delicate international consensus that currently exists on Iran, this legislation if enacted will in the end only leave Iran less isolated. In this sense, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard could not have written an oped more favorable to their interests this morning than the one penned by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinan.