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Smarter Sanctions for Iran

Legislation to broaden sanctions against Iran will only work if it is focused on clear international objectives, argues Andrew Grotto.

As Iran presses ahead with its uranium enrichment plans in defiance of the United Nations Security Council, Congress is considering new legislation designed to tighten the thumbscrews on Tehran. The Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007 would broaden U.S. unilateral sanctions against Iran and countries that do business with it. The ICPA legislation has attracted overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, with 60 senators co-sponsoring the Senate version and nearly 300 members supporting the House version.

Sanctions can help change Iran’s assessment of the costs and benefits of uranium enrichment, which could eventually produce fuel for energy reactors or bombs. But Congress must be clear-eyed about the serious difficulties that several of the measures in ICPA would create for a negotiated end to Iran’s enrichment program. Congress should evaluate proposed ICPA sanctions measures according to two principles.

Don’t overload the cart. Congress should reject measures that tie the resolution of other U.S. policy concerns vis á vis Iran—such as Iran’s support for terrorism—to the resolution of the nuclear question. Such a linkage would so complicate negotiations that it would take years, at best, to produce a settlement. Meanwhile, Iran would perfect uranium enrichment. Iran’s nuclear program is currently the more urgent threat and ought to be the primary focus of U.S. policy for the time being.

Don’t undermine UN Security Council unity so long as that unity persists. Security Council action against Iran surprised many Iranians, who thought that Iran would escape UN condemnation. Iran can no longer credibly portray the conflict as a battle between Iran and the United States alone. Partly as a result, the popularity of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is declining; Iran’s economy continues its downward slide; and Iran’s political elites are divided over what to do next.

Ahmadinejad’s best hope is that Security Council unity will eventually crumble and allow Iran to proceed with its enrichment plans. Any effort on the part of Congress to press ahead with unilateral sanctions enacted to punish Iran for more than its defiance of the United Nations might well play directly into the hands of the embattled Iranian president.

Both the Senate and House versions of the bill contain provisions that would attempt to force the president to designate the Revolutionary Guard Corps a Foreign Terrorist Organization under U.S. law. The Revolutionary Guard Corps is an official institution of the Iranian government, charged with safeguarding the Islamic Revolution of 1979 from foreign and internal threats. It is Iran’s FBI, CIA, and Special Forces all rolled into one corrupt and criminal organization.

As odious as the Revolutionary Guard Corps is, designating it a Foreign Terrorist Organization would vastly complicate the effort to achieve a negotiated end to Iran’s enrichment program by effectively binding negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program to Iran’s support for terrorism. The designation would no doubt raise to some extent the cost of Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations and uranium enrichment, although not enough to force the government to reconsider this support.

But the Revolutionary Guard also has enormous political and financial clout within the Iranian government. As a result, Iran’s leaders would almost certainly insist that the United States repeal any designation of the Revolutionary Guard as a Foreign Terrorist Organization before cutting a deal over its enrichment program. For political and technical reasons, however, no U.S. president could do so unless Iran visibly renounced terrorism, which it is unlikely to do in the foreseeable future. In effect, the provision risks limiting U.S. policy options for a negotiated solution to a so-called “grand bargain” with Iran, whereby Iran renounces terrorism and abandons its nuclear program in one fell swoop.

This is wishful thinking: a grand bargain is immensely impractical. At this juncture, neither Washington nor Tehran appears to have the desire to make the dramatic shifts in their postures that would be required to strike such a bargain. Iran would exploit this stalemate and proceed with its uranium enrichment plans. For now, the main focus of U.S. policy should be to roll back Iran’s nuclear program.

The ICPA legislation would also expand the reach of extraterritorial sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act. This measure will no doubt introduce considerable friction into U.S. relations with the European Union and other international partners, but it is unlikely to jeopardize UN Security Council unity. This is because the key countries involved in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have independent, overarching security interests in preventing Iran from going nuclear. It would make little strategic sense for them to retaliate against U.S. sanctions policy by softening their resolve on Iran. They will choose other avenues to vent their frustration.

By contrast, measures in the legislation designed to economically coerce Russia into toeing a harder line against Iran carry a major risk of corroding Security Council unity. The measure in question would prohibit the United States from concluding a nuclear cooperation agreement with Moscow if Iran proceeds with its nuclear program and Russia continues to sell Iran nuclear technology or conventional arms.

The measure is flawed for two reasons. First, it is unnecessary: Congress already has authority to block a nuclear cooperation agreement under current U.S. law. Moreover, Russia is already playing ball with the United States and the UN Security Council by delaying completion of the Bushehr energy reactor it is building for Iran. Russia publicly claims that the delay has nothing to do with Iran’s defiance of the Security Council. Few believe it.

Second, at this juncture the measure is counterproductive: it risks strengthening the hand of hardliners in Moscow who think that Russia ought to drop the ball on Iran, reject Russia’s cooperation with the United States, and see Iran as an important tactical ally in the Middle East.

Sanctions are an important part of an integrated strategy to contain Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations. The United States should continue to explore ways to tighten the thumbscrews on Iran, unilaterally if necessary. At this juncture, however, Congress should reject sanctions that would limit United States options for a negotiated end to Iran’s enrichment program to an impractical “grand bargain” or jeopardize Security Council unity.

Andrew Grotto is a Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the Center’s report, Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Nuclear Crisis with Iran.

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