Sanctions Should Not End Engagement With Iran

iran-us-flagsThere is a common perception that by moving to put in place sanctions against Iran, the Obama administration is, as a result, ending its policy of engagement. In other words, we tried diplomacy now we are ready to “move on” to sanctions. This is a misperception and assumes that sanctions and engagement are contradictory. They are not. Any sanctions that are put in place must go hand in hand with a continuous effort to engage Iran.

Those who view sanctions as a substitute for diplomacy insist that for sanctions to be successful they must be so devastating to the country that they force the Iranian regime to simply capitulate. This approach is particularly prevalent on the Hill with the IRPSA sanctions bills and was articulated by Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) who asserted that the nuclear standoff could end “without a shot being fired.” In this approach, the US should put sanctions in place and simply wait for the capitulation to come – a sort of Ron Popeil vision for sanctions: “set it and forget it” and in 45 minutes it’s all done.

However, the idea that Iran will just capitulate because of sanctions is fanciful. Authoritarian regimes have shown again and again (see Iraq and Cuba) tremendous staying power in the face of comprehensive sanctions, as they are able to simply transfer the costs of these sanctions to the people and use the sanctions as a scapegoat for the regime’s failings. As Matt Duss has pointed out, the IRPSA sanctions will backfire precisely for these reasons.

Therefore, for sanctions to have any chance of success they must not only be highly targeted to prevent the regime from using them as a nationalist rallying cry, but they must go hand in hand with continued diplomatic engagement. The logic behind targeted international sanctions is that they should focus like a laser on applying costs to the regime itself, thereby preventing them from being used as a nationalist rallying cry. Once in place, the removal of these sanctions becomes a major carrot that the international community can use to lure the Iranians to make concessions. In this view, sanctions are in themselves a tool for negotiations, not a replacement for them.

This has been the approach the Administration has applied to sanctions on North Korea and it appears to be working. Effective international sanctions combined with a willingness on the part of the Obama administration to engage the North Koreans, as seen by Obama’s letter and his Special Envoy’s visit, has pushed Pyongyang to climb down and consent to restart the six-party talks. It is in this vein that Senator Kerry’s offer to visit Tehran, as reported by the Cable on Friday, should be seriously considered by the White House. Kerry apparently pitched this idea to the White House, which it is thinking it over. The Administration has also signaled that is open to further talks, in today’s briefing State Department spokesman PJ Crowley confirmed that “the offer for engagement is still there.”

There shouldn’t be any expectation that sanctions are a silver bullet for the situation in Iran and North Korea and in fact even targeted sanctions may backfire. But if sanctions are to be honestly pursued as a means to stop Iran from getting the bomb, then continuous engagement much continue. Diplomacy does not, and should not, end with sanctions.