How Serious Are Conservatives About Iran Sanctions?

At the Weekly Standard, Jamie Fly, policy director at the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, looks at the Obama administration’s attempts to put the brakes on the Senate version of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), and asks “How serious is the administration about Iran sanctions?

[G]iven the uncertain prospects at the United Nations, it is somewhat surprising that the administration is not using the Iran sanctions legislation moving through Congress as a lever to influence the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans. Instead, the administration is asking the Senate to significantly modify its version of the legislation (sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Even though the legislation was hotlined last week, Sen. Kerry has held it up at the administration’s request. […]

It is unlikely that either the House or the Senate versions is a silver bullet — questions remain about the impact on the regime even if the current legislation passed and was promptly implemented by the administration. But the administration’s efforts to gut the legislation and its sensitivity about the supposedly robust international coalition they like to tout as a product of their willingness to talk to Tehran raises questions about how serious they and their “partners” are about stopping Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon.

Not “a silver bullet?” That’s like saying Sarah Palin is “not the greatest mind of her time.” There’s really no one who seriously argues that these particular sanctions will do anything to positively effect the Iranian regime’s behavior. As Amb. James Dobbins put it in testimony (pdf) to the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, “A unilateral American ban with extraterritorial application” — such as is contained in both the House and Senate bills — “would seem to offer the worst combination of effects, penalizing the population, strengthening the regime, embroiling the United States in endless disputes with its allies, and thereby disrupting existing international solidarity in opposition to Iran’s nuclear aspirations.” Each of the other three Iran experts testifying voiced very similar concerns.


But, as a congressional aide told The Forward, “the State Department had made clear that it [did] not oppose Berman’s decision to move the legislation forward and bring it to a vote, a move that would enable the administration to prove it is ready to crank up pressure against Iran.” That is, according to the source, the administration is using the legislation in precisely in the manner Fly complains it’s not being used. Indeed, the only conceivable effective use of these sanctions (of which I’m highly skeptical, as I noted yesterday, given the real potential for undermining support for measures that might actually work) is as a riding crop raised over the hindquarters of our international partners.

I think a much better question is: How serious are conservatives about sanctions? At all serious? Or are they just trying to check a box before moving on to the air strikes for which many of them are no longer even bothering to conceal their enthusiasm?

Briefly, on the political-strategic point, I really hope the administration isn’t being too sanguine about its ability to hold up the legislation while leveraging it into cooperation from our international partners. Any way you look at it, this is a tick in the wrong direction, and raises the pressure for “doing something” and then “doing more” when, given the current state of the Iranian regime, doing less might be called for. As we know from very recent history, these measures can and do create momentum that becomes irreversible, until eventually we’ll be told that we have no other choice than to proceed over the cliff.