Former U.S. Ambassador Warns Against Sanctions-Only Iran Policy

Ryan Crocker (Credit: AP)

A former U.S. Ambassador to numerous countries throughout the Middle East is concerned that the increase in sanctions on Iran being weighed in Congress may actually hurt the ongoing efforts to confront Tehran’s nuclear program.

Part of the current U.S. strategy in forcing Iran to divulge more about and rein in its nuclear program is the use of economic sanctions. Rather than forcing a new conciliatory posture from Iran, former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker believes a new wave of U.S.-imposed unilateral sanctions could instead have a chilling effect on efforts to diplomatically solve the standoff.

“Sanctions are easy to do, and afterwards we can tell ourselves that, ‘By God, we’ve really stuck it to them,'” Crocker said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “But it seems to me that the more you press this regime, the more they dig in.”

In his role as a member of The Iran Project, a bipartisan expert panel examining the Iranian nuclear standoff, Crocker signed a report issued last month that stressed many of the same points as in his L.A. Times interview. “The United States should now dedicate as much energy and creativity to negotiating directly with Iran as it has to assembling a broad international coalition to pressure and isolate Iran,” the report suggested, noting that the current sanctions strategy has the potential to backfire.

Secretary of State John Kerry sought to stress a similar view to Congress in April, asking the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to delay any new sanctions push until at the very least after Iran’s upcoming presidential elections. “There’s an enormous amount of jockeying going on, with the obvious normal tension between hard-liners and people who want to make an agreement,” Kerry explained during a committee hearing. “We don’t need to spin this up at this point in time. … You need to leave us the window to try to work the diplomatic channel.”

The Obama administration has to-date preferred imposing multilateral sanctions against the regime through the United Nations Security Council, or utilizing Executive Orders to target facets of the Iranian government unilaterally. Congress, however, has opted to take a more confrontational approach, an effort that has been increasing in recent months with no real end in sight. Rather than taking Kerry’s request to heart, Congress is instead currently considering several bills that would ratchet up the economic pressure on Tehran.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) is leading the charge to place more restrictions on Iran’s economy, introducing a bill that would entail a near total global embargo on Iranian oil. As part of the measure, countries currently receive waivers to U.S. banking sanctions against those states that purchase Iranian oil would have to collectively reduce their oil imports by an average 1 million barrels per day over the course of a year to continue to receive these waivers. International oil embargoes have caused Iran’s total oil export per day to fall to a 26 year low of 1.5 million barrels per day.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has likewise introduced a companion piece of legislation in the Senate, this one designed to bar any and all financial transactions between the United States and any government doing any sort of business with Iran. This would mean threatening U.S. sanctions on any state that carries out transactions with any level of the Iranian government, from purchasing oil to selling medicine to the Ministry of Health. Neither the House nor Senate version allows for the provisions to sunset, requiring a further act of Congress to lift the sanctions.

These bills would come just months after Congress enacting a round of sanctions against Iran in December as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. The current proposals aren’t being well-met from all corners, though. In a recent editorial, Bloomberg News sided with Kerry and the administration. “A sanctions strategy will work only if Iran can be promised the penalties will end if its policies change,” Bloomberg said, adding, “Those few mandated by Congress, however, can be reversed only by new congressional action. That limits the ability of U.S. negotiators to offer sanctions relief in return for Iranian concessions.”