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More Sanctions, More Problems

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There is a consensus in Washington that more sanctions will help convince Iran to halt its nuclear development. On June 3, President Obama issued an executive order — his sixth in two years — announcing new sanctions targeting Iran’s currency and its auto industry. Meanwhile, a number of separate sanctions bills are being circulated in Congress, with additional penalties expected to be passed later this summer. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez recently remarked, “The sanctions are working – but they aren’t enough, and they aren’t working fast enough.”

The logic of both the White House and Congress seems to be that we need more sanctions to compel Iran to negotiate and freeze its controversial nuclear program. But our research suggests the opposite: repeated intensifications of economic pressure are not bringing Iran to the negotiating table. In fact, sanctions now appear to be pushing the long-sought-after nuclear agreement further away.

A recent report by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation concluded that sanctions are not “working” the way they should be. Yes, they’ve hit Iran’s economy hard — but that doesn’t mean the policy is succeeding. Crucially, sanctions haven’t persuaded Iran’s leadership to come to an agreement with the West and may have begun to strengthen the Iranian regime and cement its determination to continue defying the international community.

How is it that sanctions are doing the opposite of what they were supposed to? This wasn’t always the case. Particularly in the early years of the Obama administration, when the President exerted considerable political muscle to get international allies on board with tough penalties on Iran, sanctions helped signal to Tehran that the international community was serious about the nuclear issue. Moreover, by focusing on sanctions instead of taking the drastic step toward military action, the President showed a preference for resolving the impasse through diplomacy rather than war.

Since then, however, a curious thing has happened. Thanks to the sheer number of sanctions that have been put in place, the American commitment to a diplomatic solution appears increasingly hollow. Theoretically, Iran should be interested in talking to the West in order to negotiate for sanctions relief. But the actual process of lifting sanctions is far more complicated than it appears — a number of legal and political hurdles have prevented the U.S. and its European allies from credibly committing to significant sanctions relief during negotiations with Iran.

For instance, sanctions passed by Congress require another act of Congress before they can be repealed and U.S. lawmakers would be loath to pass such legislation for fear of appearing weak on Iran. Another problem is that many sanctions are written with built-in conditions that need to be met before they can be terminated. Some of these conditions are so out of reach that Iran may no longer see a point in even showing up for the negotiations.

Due to all the strings attached to sanctions legislation, Iranians perceive the U.S. as being more interested in sanctions than in coming to an agreement.

Even as these legal and bureaucratic difficulties stall the diplomatic process, the impact of sanctions within Iran is also hurting U.S. interests. Rather than weakening the defiant regime, sanctions have actually given the Iranian government the ability to manage the economy and consolidate its power. Through patronage, currency manipulation, and other methods, Iran’s leaders have taken advantage of the sanctions by forcing people in dire economic straits to rely on special government favors.

Meanwhile, younger Iranians and political moderates — who, somewhere down the line, could be useful allies for the U.S. — are seeing their economic and political power diminished. They’re also starting to blame the West for their woes.

In the long term, then, sanctions are eroding American influence in Iran. And in the short term, sanctions aren’t giving the U.S. and its allies the leverage they need in nuclear negotiations. More sanctions, according to our research, will not solve this problem. In fact, more sanctions will make the problem harder to solve. As veteran Middle East diplomat Ryan Crocker recently warned, “it seems to me that the more you press this regime, the more they dig in.”

On June 3, while unveiling the new executive branch sanctions, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted, “Even as we intensify our pressure on the Iranian government, we hold the door open to a diplomatic solution.” Carney’s comments obscured a troubling reality: sanctions no longer go hand in hand with the diplomatic process. Rather, sanctions are hindering efforts to negotiate with the Iranians and to resolve the problem peacefully.

Economic sanctions could have served as a useful element of a sophisticated, multi-faceted effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Now, however, sanctions are fast becoming the entirety of our policy — and a policy of pressure alone has little chance of succeeding. To make genuine progress on the Iranian nuclear issue, the Obama administration and Congress must shift their focus toward sanctions relief and compromise, rather than sticking with the pressure-only approach that’s proving increasingly counterproductive.

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