Neoconservative analyst Michael Rubin hails yesterday’s passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) as “a step in the right direction“:
The most effective diplomacy occurs when it occurs simultaneously with more coercive strategies. Indeed, if we wanted maximal leverage in diplomacy, we should attempt to maximize sanctions and then negotiate to suspend them as Tehran complied with international norms. There are many sanctions that would be effective even without Beijing or Moscow’s buy-in and which could not be exploited by Chinese and Russian businessmen. Most of these involve designations of Iran’s Central Bank.
There’s quite a bit that’s wrong here. Tehran is already the subject of numerous sanctions, and has been since 1979. No one would argue that these sanctions have shown any notable success in changing Iranian behavior — that is, apart from moving it in a more aggressive direction, strengthening a siege mentality among Iran’s hardliners and undercutting moderates’ calls for engagement. Even granting Rubin’s questionable assertion that “the most effective diplomacy occurs… simultaneously with more coercive strategies,” it’s worth noting that a recent report from Rubin’s own employer, the American Enterprise Institute, concluded not only that IRPSA “might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term,” but that “the group that should be the target of strengthened sanctions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is least likely to be affected.”
But IRPSA is not just ineffective, it’s actually counterproductive to the goal of garnering necessary international support for the sort of carefully calibrated measures that might actually work to put pressure on the Revolutionary Guards, which is why the administration is now working with Senate allies to put the brakes on the Senate version of the sanctions bill.
Rubin also writes “Discussion of whether any particular Iranian figure endorses any particular sanction are silly“:
Designing any U.S. policy around the endorsement of any Iranian figure is silly. The Obama administration should instead base U.S. strategy on U.S. national interests and effectiveness. The Iranian people would certainly rally around the flag should there be any military action against Iran, but they have never rallied to the government’s side when faced with economic trouble. They consistently blame the government, as they did when during previous oil shortages.
I’ll give Rubin credit for this much: At least, unlike IRPSA sponsor Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), Rubin hasn’t ridiculously suggested that the Iranian people actually want the U.S. to impose sanctions that will hurt the Iranian people. Rubin just says that we shouldn’t care. But, of course, we should care — at least if we’re serious about creating the political space necessary for Iran’s Green movement to successfully challenge, and ideally replace, the current regime. Blunt, poorly-designed sanctions like those contained in IRPSA, while perhaps providing Congresspersons opportunities for sanctimonious grandstanding, do just the opposite: They would offer Iran’s hardliners a powerful propaganda lifeline, and would likely facilitate greater regime consolidation right at the moment that the conservative consensus around Ahmadinejad is starting to crack up. This is probably the reason why Green movement leaders and spokespersons in the West have condemned them.
While it’s true that many Iranians blame their government for economic troubles, that doesn’t mean they don’t also blame the U.S. and the international community. Further, as Brookings Institution Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney noted yesterday in testimony (pdf) to the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs,”The Islamic Republic has experienced a number of episodes of severe economic pressure, but none have generated the kind of foreign policy moderation that the sponsors of ILSA, IRPSA or any of the other manifold punitive measures against Tehran sanguinely forecast“:
Rather, past periods of external pressure on Iran have facilitated the coalescence of the regime and the consolidation of its public support, and economic constraint has generated enhanced cooperation among Iran’s bickering factions. Tight purse strings have forced moderation of Iran’s economic policies but only rarely of its political dynamics.
Ironically, while Rubin writes that “the Obama administration should recognize that survival of the Islamic Republic as a regime is not a U.S. interest,” (there is, by the way, no evidence that the Obama administration thinks otherwise, but frankly why should anyone care what sort of republic Iran bills itself as, so long it’s not misbehaving or mistreating its citizens?) that survival — in its most hardline form — is made more likely by the very sanctions he supports.