As the pressure built early last week for President Obama to forgo diplomacy with Iran in favor of imposing new sanctions, Iran's top opposition leader posed a piercing question to the world. "Which one of [Iran's leaders] can be expected to care about the agony their behavior imposes on people?" Mir-Hossein Mousavi asked. By belying the bankruptcy of the alternatives, his question underscored the importance of President Obama's diplomatic engagement with Iran.
The wisdom of this approach was reinforced again on Thursday, when the United States secured an agreement that will significantly reduce Iran's capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Even at this early stage, President Obama's diplomatic strategy has already achieved more positive results than the Bush administration's bellicose policy did in eight years. Yet by that evening, the U.S. Congress disregarded Mousavi's advice and Obama's diplomatic success, imposing new sanctions against Iran that, if anything, will only hurt the Iranian people.
Mousavi pointed out the obvious problem with most sanctions being proposed, saying they will "mostly hurt the poor" and will not help Iran's opposition. Indeed, it's even worse than Mousavi thinks. The sanctions Congress passed Thursday are a baby step toward imposing the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), which would in all likelihood help the Ahmadinejad government.
IRPSA would expand unilateral sanctions and target companies exporting refined petroleum to Iran. The goal is to put pressure on Iran, but which "Iran" will we be hurting - the Iranian government or the Iranian people? Just like in the United States, Iran's poor, middle class, and elderly will bear the brunt of any gas price shock. Between its domestic production and smuggled petroleum, the ruling clergy and Revolutionary Guards will surely find a way to keep their gas tanks full and heat their homes. But if the sanctions really work, many of the very same Iranian people that members of Congress spoke so highly of this summer will be left out in the cold when winter hits.
An embargo on refined petroleum poses further problems. It would provide the excuse the Iranian government wants to eliminate burdensome petroleum subsidies and place the blame on the United States. Iran has to import roughly one third of its domestic gasoline consumption at market prices and then resell it at a subsidized price of about 40 cents per gallon. These subsidies cost the government of Iran a tremendous sum - between 10 and 20 percent of GDP, annually. For this reason, the Iranian government wants nothing more than to eliminate these subsidies, but it has been stymied repeatedly by popular opposition. Ironically, an embargo would enable them to eliminate these subsides, freeing up cash for the government to spend elsewhere, such as building more nuclear centrifuges or expanding the IRGC.
The Iranian people have already come out into the streets, risking everything, to protest against the government. If the west imposes sanctions because Iran refuses to halt its nuclear enrichment program, which has the overwhelming support of the Iranian people, who will the Iranians blame for the sanctions? Most will blame the United States, and the opposition will be put on the defensive. Rather than focusing solely on its demands for an end to the injustices being carried out and the restoration of the peoples' rights, the opposition will be forced to spend its time and energy proving its loyalty to the embattled nation.
Fortunately, some in Congress are now working on a better option. Rather than pushing for indiscriminate economic sanctions like IRPSA, they are pursuing the best path to pressuring the Iranian government: empowering the Iranian people to more effectively stand up for their rights and imposing targeted sanctions against Iranian government officials.
Taking the Iranian government on at its weakest point - human rights - these lawmakers will soon introduce legislation that sanctions Iranian government officials guilty of human rights abuses while eliminating roadblocks that undermine the development of a vibrant civil society in Iran. There are targeted sanctions the US and its allies can impose, such as freezing bank accounts, imposing travel bans on government officials and military commanders, and sanctioning companies that provide censorship technology to Iran. Iran's leaders will care a lot more when they discover they can't access their European bank accounts - like the $1.6 billion account Britain froze this summer - than they will if their own people suffer.
The plan will also help empower the Iranian people by ensuring that they have free and unfettered access to the Internet and communications tools, and by fostering greater cooperation between the peoples of America and Iran.
Just like June 12 and the weeks that followed changed our notions about the Iranian people, it's time for Congress to change its approach on Iran. It's time for Congress to stand with the Iranian people, not against them.
Follow David Elliott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NIACouncil