Don't Sanction Iran for Sanctions' Sake

08/18/2011 10:26 am ET | Updated Oct 18, 2011

Last week, more than 90 U.S. Senators sent a letter to President Obama urging the president to put sanctions upon Iran's central bank -- essentially creating a financial blockade. While existing sanctions have contributed to constraining the Iranian regime's nuclear program, this latest sanctions proposal could make dealing with Iran harder and war more likely. Before tempting that risk, Washington should clarify the end goal of sanctioning Iran.

The Iran sanctions proposal du jour seems intended to curtail the flow of oil revenue into the Iranian economy, which could limit the regime's resources and stoke public resentment in Iran. Such added pressure, proponents argue, could get Iran to cease its many activities that threaten international security.

On the other hand, as Atlantic Council Iran Task Force-member Barbara Slavin reported:

"Sanctioning the Central Bank would punish ordinary Iranians, something the Obama administration has said it wants to avoid, and could undermine what had been a growing international consensus against the Iranian nuclear program. It could also jack up oil prices at a time when the global economy is teetering on the verge of a second recession."

The risks of the proposed sanctions -- undercutting multilateral efforts and reliving the human costs of Iraq-style sanctions with Iran -- outweigh the supposed benefits of added pressure. After 30 years of adapting to sanctions, even more sanctions are unlikely to cause the Iranian regime to suddenly collapse or comply with U.S. demands. Instead, the U.S. is more likely to find itself with a fractured coalition against Iran and fewer policy options for keeping the regime from the bomb.

It is smart politics for members of Congress to call for sanctions on Iran simply to tell constituents that they are doing something. Such political bluster, however, will not relieve the basic dilemma of how to manage the Iranian threat. At some point, when all sanctions have failed, constituents will ask, "Now what?" As with Iraq a decade ago, a politically charged Washington could respond by backing itself into a ruinous war with Iran.

Washington needs to check its assumptions about sanctions strategies, starting at square one. What are U.S. objectives with Iran and how do sanctions work to achieve them?

Former National Intelligence Officer Paul Pillar recently noted that advocates for sanctioning Iran often fail to define the overall objective of sanctions. Instead, Pillar argues, much of the sanctions commentary "amounts to saying 'regime X bad--must pressure it.'" A more reasoned debate would state a policy objective and tailor sanctions toward that outcome. Lacking such clarity of purpose, sanctions could result in incoherent or conflicting policy goals.

In an essay in the forthcoming edition of A Global Agenda: Issues Before the United Nations, Joe Cirincione and I argue that sanctions must be part of a comprehensive engagement strategy designed to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while avoiding war. We note:

"Iran is more politically and economically isolated than ever before, but for sanctions to work they must be part of a balanced strategy with incentives for cooperation. The sanctioned party must also trust that sanctions will be lifted if it cooperates. Current U.S. strategy is heavy on sanctions and light on positive incentives. Lacking this balance, stalemate with Iran persists.

...

The U.S. needs to ease off threats of crippling sanctions and holster counter-productive military threats. These only strengthen the position of Iran's hardliners, who oppose engagement. Instead of adding pressure, negotiators need to communicate a sequence of actions that the Iranian regime can take over time in exchange for the gradual lifting of sanctions."

Sanctions would be more effective if better targeted to influence Tehran's decisions against nuclear weapons. For now, that requires clarifying the goal of U.S. sanctions. Unfortunately, last week's Senate letter did none of the above. The senators proposed sanctions for sanctions sake -- a shortsighted tactic that does more harm than good for U.S. strategy with Iran.