Misrepresenting The Iran Sanctions Debate

A common tactic in political writing is to posit two sides of a debate, demonstrate why they are both wrong, and then offer your own much more reasonable argument. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, I’ve used the tactic myself in the past and probably will again in the future.

But in order for this to work, one has to begin by offering an at least somewhat plausible portrayal of the two sides of the debate as they actually exist. I think Trita Parsi and Alireza Nader did a fine job of this in their piece yesterday, in which the authors advocated a “third way” for U.S. policy toward Iran, neither “realism” nor “regime change,” an approach that keeps the onus on the Iranian regime through continued engagement, but also keeps human rights solidly on the agenda in an effort to create space for Iranian reformers.

In contrast, Mark Dubowitz’s piece today — in which he argues that the debate over “targeted” versus “broad-based” sanctions is a false one — does a very poor job, both in defining the positions of the sides, but also in presenting the consensus on the efficacy of sanctions as it actually exists among analysts.

Dubowitz writes that the efficacy of energy sanctions has “been plagued by a bipolar debate“:

Energy sanctions, particularly gasoline sanctions, have been characterized by some as a silver bullet that would cripple the Iranian economy, inflict a mortal wound on the regime, and drive an angry Iranian public to rally around the flag. Others have deplored the sanctions as a pinprick that would cause a mere flesh wound while enriching Chinese and Russian mercantilists at the expense of Europeans and Americans.

Both views are wrong: Energy sanctions are an extension of a comprehensive economic warfare strategy designed to weaken the Revolutionary Guards and feed the flames of discontent.[…]

In the end, “smart” sanctions are those that can cripple the Iranian energy sector — the lifeblood of the men who rule Iran. But both the Obama administration and Congress have an important role to play in achieving this goal; it’s not a question of one approach or the other.

Another point I should have made earlier: If you’re critiquing two opposing arguments in favor of a third option, it helps if your third option isn’t simply a restatement of one of the two positions you’re ostensibly critiquing. Dubowitz’s argument is basically that the debate over “targeted” versus “broad-based” sanctions is false because “broad-based” sanctions are very useful and we should use them. But to make that argument straightforwardly he would actually have to marshal some evidence, and apart from a few assertions, he doesn’t have any.

As I’ve written before, there is a pretty strong consensus among analysts — progressives, centrists, and conservatives — that energy sanctions will be largely useless, if not counterproductive. While they would exact a heavy price on Iran’s population, they would do little to weaken the regime, while at the same enriching the Revolutionary Guards elements who control Iran’s black market. To the extent that that the economic pain felt by the Iranian people translated into more anger at the government, this would likely be overwhelmed by a rally ’round the flag effect.

The only actual Iran expert that Dubowitz does cite for the pro-sanctions argument, Hooman Majd, he does misleadingly. Dubowitz quotes Majd’s book, The Ayatollah Begs To Differ, in which Majd wrote that, among many Iranians, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “was viewed as having both exacerbated the economic crunch and contributed to the sense of insecurity.” This is true, even some Iranian hardliners think Ahmadinejad’s stewardship of the economy has been disastrous, but it simply doesn’t follow that greater economic insecurity will translate into better Iranian behavior. Indeed, Majd himself wrote last September that sanctions “will never force Iran to do what the West demands of it.” Majd may be wrong or right, but it’s baldly dishonest to draft him into the pro-sanctions cause.

As best I can tell, the arguments (or rather assertions) in favor of broad-based sanctions are coming almost exclusively from conservative lobbying groups like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and conservative think tanks closely aligned with AIPAC, like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, of which Dubowitz is executive director.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that Dubowitz significantly undercuts his own argument right at the outset of the piece. He acknowledges that, because of measures already undertaken by the U.S. Treasury Department, “more than 80 foreign financial institutions [have] terminated or reduced their business with Iran over the past three years,” even though they “were not legally bound to comply with U.S. sanctions.”

But after Treasury revealed Iran’s extensive use of deceptive financial practices and front companies, foreign bankers did so anyway. The benefits of their Iranian business were outweighed by the costs of being linked to bad actors, as well as the real risk of losing access to U.S. financial markets.

As Dubowitz acknowledges, the Obama administration already possesses considerable tools to pressure companies doing business with Iranian regime officials, and has been using those tools to good effect. There are also a number of dual-use sanctions on the books that have been doing a good job frustrating Iran’s nuclear development. Why are even broader sanctions necessary? Dubowitz doesn’t say.