As Congress prepares to tighten the vise around Iran with new sanctions, American leaders need to ask what previous measures have accomplished and whether additional ones would help or hurt efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
An amendment to the “must-pass” defense bill being considered by Congress would blacklist several industrial sectors in Iran and expand U.S. actions against human-rights abuses there. With Iran still refusing to comply with U.N. requirements that it assure the world it isn’t pursuing nuclear arms, this legislation may seem justified. Yet, as the Obama administration has warned, these additional penalties would undermine efforts to test the effectiveness of existing sanctions.
In an effort to illuminate the sanctions discussion, we have signed on to a new report, “Weighing Benefits and Costs of International Sanctions Against Iran,” along with 35 other American leaders from the political, national-security, business, military and diplomatic communities. As the paper points out, 30 years of sanctions against Iran have delivered important benefits.
These actions have demonstrated international opposition to Iranian policies; slowed expansion of Iran’s nuclear and missile programs; signaled the U.S. commitment to nonproliferation of nuclear weapons; weakened Iran’s economy; registered strong opposition to Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas; shown commitment to the security of Israel and other friends in the region; and severely hampered Iran’s ability to modernize its conventional weapons.
Sanctions seem to have caused the Iranian regime to take more seriously proposals that could lead to a negotiated settlement of the nuclear standoff. However, they have not yet prompted Iran to accede to U.N. Security Council demands to suspend uranium enrichment and cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
These measures have also had downsides. Sanctions have created divisions within the international coalition against Iran, complicating U.S. policy in Libya and Syria; pushed more of the Iranian economy underground into the control of autocratic factions; empowered anti-reform voices and reduced the space for political dissent in Iran; limited the availability of life-saving medicines and food in Iran; and contributed to the volatility of oil prices globally. Sanctions may have planted seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States. Most dangerously, sanctions have increased the potential for U.S.-Iran conflict and regional violence.
The U.S. sanctions regime already includes a matrix of laws and executive orders with no clear test for success. Success could be reducing human-rights abuses, ending funding for terrorist groups, limiting Iran’s nuclear program or all of the above.
This spiderweb of sanctions and objectives, wrapped up in legislative hurdles, could restrict President Obama’s options should he decide to offer incentives for Iran to cooperate at the negotiating table. If a bilateral meeting were arranged, American negotiators would need to select what to offer Iran in exchange for securing U.S. goals, the most important of which must be a serious reduction of, and greater transparency around, Iran’s nuclear program. Included in that offer would surely be some sanctions relief.
Our leaders must weigh the easy and appealing course of ever-greater sanctions as a way to force a ready-to-deal Iran to the table against testing the possibility that the existing sanctions have already done that work. The president should work with Congress to achieve the right mix of pressure and engagement to get Iran to negotiate on increasingly urgent and threatening differences. There should be talks between the president and senior senators to make sure there is a plan to strengthen or roll back sanctions as needed to get what we want from Iran in negotiations.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise on time.” As our report points out, most past presidents have ultimately chosen the more-sanctions path.
Obama now has the opportunity to prove that the sanctions have worked. He should persist in his efforts to get the Iranians to the table to get at least a confidence-building initial deal that would break the standoff. Troubled by the mounting damage of sanctions on all aspects of society, Iran’s leadership is likely to be more receptive today to a serious proposal from the United States than ever before. The time is ripe for a deal and wrong for more sanctions.
Lee Hamilton, a former representative from Indiana, was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Thomas Pickering was undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997 to 2000 and served as U.S. ambassador to Russia, Israel, Jordan and the United Nations. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni was head of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000.