Last night the U.S. Senate showed that, as opposed to the gridlock that prevents the passing of needed reforms that would actually benefit the American people, when it comes to ill-conceived, poorly designed measures that provide legislators an easy way feel like they’re “getting tough” on something or other, it can move with a quickness.
In a voice vote, the Senate passed a new sanctions passage targeting “gasoline imports in a bid to force Tehran to bow to global pressure to freeze its suspect nuclear program.”
The sweeping measure, which passed by voice vote, must now be blended with a similar bill in the House of Representatives to forge a compromise measure for both sides to approve and send to President Barack Obama.
The Senate bill aims to punish non-Iranian firms that do business in Iran’s energy sector or help the Islamic republic produce or import refined petroleum products like gasoline by blocking them from doing business in the US market.
Indicating that they intend to keep up the pressure on the administration to immediately adopt these sanctions once passed, on Wednesday a group of senators — Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), David Vitter (R-LA), John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), and Sen, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — sent President Obama a letter “urging” him “to make full use of them.” This despite clear past signals from the administration that the indiscriminate sanctions in the bill actually works against the goal of targeted sanctions and tightening pre-existing sanctions. (Gregg Carlstrom notes that administration figures have recently stepped up their talk of sanctions, but I don’t think qualifies as an “endorsement” of this package as much as an acceptance that it was going through, and of the need to work with Congress over its implementation.)
As I have noted in previous posts, there’s not a single analyst in Washington — or anywhere — who has credibly described how these particular sanctions stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — let alone advance “the human rights and peaceful aspirations of the Iranian people,” as the senators’ letter claims.
Recently, two leading Iran experts, Patrick Clawson of the conservative-leaning Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, came out against new sanctions. Speaking at an event at the Washington Institute, Takeyh called sanctions “a fallback policy for the United States often when the situation becomes complicated,” and that he was “not comfortable with the idea of sanctions as a solution to the Iran problem, whether it’s the domestic problem, or the nuclear problem.”
Clawson reminded the audience that there are a number of sanctions on the books that have effectively slowed Iran’s nuclear program, and said that he was interested in “more vigorous enforcement of tough dual-use sanctions than I am necessarily about extending the list of sanctions.”
The United Nations sanctions are often dismissed as being “token.” That seems to me to be a profound misreading. It is very important to have dual-use sanctions, it is very important to have sanctions targeted at the nuclear and missile programs, because anything we can do to slow down their programs helps us. There are two clocks ticking — that’s an old cliche, but it’s true, the democracy clock seems to be ticking a lot faster than it used to be at the moment. So anything we can do to slow down the nuclear clock is, therefore, in fact, an accomplishment. Iran has been at this nuclear business for twenty years. Twenty years and they’re still not there, and the reason is, in no small part, because we have forced them to reinvent the wheel repeatedly. And recently some of the things they’ve been able to acquire from abroad don’t seem to work quite as designed, and malfunction on a remarkably consistent basis. That is good, and there’s much more that we can do.
On the specific question of gasoline sanctions such as those contained in the package just passed, Clawson warned “There are a lot of implementation challenges to gasoline sanctions, and I don’t like adopting a sanction which, in fact, we’re not prepared to implement.”
So I would not adopt a sanction on gasoline imports into Iran unless we are prepared to sink Venezuelan ships carrying that gasoline. Now, if we are prepared to do that, then let’s talk. But if you’re not prepared to sink those Venezuelan ships carrying that gasoline to Iran, don’t adopt the measures just to make you feel good, because it’s going to make you look impotent.
This gets at the inherently escalatory nature of sanctions. When the first round doesn’t work well enough, there’s the impulse to add more and more, and eventually you need to do dumb things like sink oil tankers to show you “mean business.” Casting a vote for more Iran sanctions may give legislators a warm feeling, but they will do little to solve the problem of the Iranian nuclear program, and make the U.S. look impotent in the process.