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Changing Course on Iran Sanctions

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New sanctions on Iran are about the surest bet in Washington these days.

Both the House and the Senate have passed a "crippling" gasoline embargo, and the administration has all but given up talk of negotiations in favor of pressing for UN Security Council sanctions "that bite." In fact, the only thing left that the administration and Congress disagree on is whether the new sanctions should target all of Iranian society or just the hardliners in power -- not an insignificant disagreement by any measure, but one that underscores the broader acceptance of the argument that new sanctions are the only game in town.

But given the fact that the U.S. has sanctioned Iran for decades with little to show for it, the debate over U.S.-Iran policy should not be boiled down to a question of how much more damage we can do. Rather, smart power dictates that the U.S. use every tool available, including those that have been taken off the table, such as lifting certain sanctions.

No one expects the U.S. to unilaterally lift its embargo on Iran. But certain sanctions have unambiguously failed to achieve their objective, contributing instead to the suffering of ordinary Iranians. These should be reexamined, and where appropriate, lifted.

This has already been done once this year. As Iranians were using Twitter and Facebook to mobilize after the June election, U.S. sanctions actually made some of these vital tools illegal for Iranians. Luckily, the State Department and the Treasury acted to remove this restriction. This actually increased the pressure on the regime, since every tweet made Ahmadinejad sweat a little more.

This idea has support across the political spectrum. The Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said, "It's exactly what I think OFAC needs to be doing, not simply designating new targets or tightening sanctions, but also loosening sanctions when it can further our foreign policy goals." Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy celebrated the decision to waive the Internet sanctions, calling it "an extremely prudent move," and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) even introduced legislation to enact this very change last year.

Relaxing Internet sanctions on Iran was an important step in helping the Iranian people utilize the free flow of information to plot their own destiny, but it was only a first step. Similar steps should be taken, in concert with multilateral engagement and targeted pressure on Iran's human rights abusers, to give the Iranian people the best chance they have to realize their century-long struggle for democracy.

American NGOs are the world's leaders in promoting human rights, basic humanitarian assistance, and vital aid for some of the Iranian people's most vexing problems. But sanctions prevent groups like Relief International and Mercy Corps from working in Iran. These and other groups assisted the victims of the Bam earthquake in 2004 under a rare special exemption from sanctions issued by the Treasury Department. Never before has the United States carried out such effective public diplomacy than when American relief workers dug through rubble in Iran to the cheers of Iranian onlookers.

However, after the 180-day exemption period expired, the Americans were told to hastily pack up their things and return home, lest they violate U.S. sanctions.

Surely, lifesaving medical care and disaster relief services are not somehow "dual-use." Sanctions that prohibit legitimate aid organizations from saving lives do nothing to punish the Iranian government, and only add to the misery of the Iranian people.

The same can be said of human rights organizations. Human rights are the No. 1 problem facing the Iranian people today. And though the Iranian government would likely bar organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International from entering the country, they currently don't have to: U.S. sanctions prohibit rights groups from working on the ground in Iran.

As members of the House and Senate set out today to finalize legislation imposing yet greater burdens on the Iranian people by cutting off Iran's gasoline supply, conferees should sit up and take note. When the final version of the bill is sent to President Barack Obama for his signature, it should include constructive provisions like those put forward by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Moran. Ellison authored the Stand With the Iranian People Act, which would remove sanctions on U.S. NGOs and punish companies that provide repressive technology to Iran's government; and Moran is championing H.R. 4301, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act, to expand the Internet software waiver to include anti-censorship and anti-surveillance tools to make the Internet safer for Iranians.

Enacting these and other similar measures would send a powerful signal that the U.S. is able to distinguish between the Iranian government and its people.

Much more than the "crippling" sanctions that nearly everyone supports but that no one believes will work, Congress and the administration should make reforming existing sanctions a central element of their Iran strategy.

This post, co-authored by Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, originally appeared in The Hill