For more than two decades now, US policy on Iran has depended almost entirely on sanctions. Even now, Congress is set to pass the latest in a long line of "crippling" pressures: a gasoline embargo that both Republicans and Democrats believe is unlikely to alter Iran's behavior in the slightest, but which some hope will cause enough pain for the Iranian people that they will protest a little harder than they already are.
But the yardstick for an effective Iran policy is not how much pain and suffering it will cause among innocent Iranians. Rather, changing the policies and behavior of Tehran's repressive government should be our ultimate goal. This means that when it comes to sanctions, bigger is not always better. If Washington wants to do something on Iran, it should first stop helping the Ahmadinejad government repress its people.
Luckily, there is a chance that things are about to change. Just as most of Congress is stuck in the narrow mindset of draconian sanctions, two new bills have been introduced that offer a new way forward on Iran. The Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), led by Rep. Keith Ellison, and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA), led by Rep. Jim Moran, both seek to redefine how Congress approaches the Iran issue, in favor of a smarter, more holistic strategy.
SWIPA removes damaging barriers in existing US law that block Americans and Iranians from working together on projects like building hospitals and schools in Iran or promoting human rights. It also places tough, targeted sanctions on human rights abusers within the Iranian government as well as on companies that provide the government with tools of repression.
Similarly, IDEA will enable Iranians to access instant messaging programs like Google Chat and Microsoft Messenger that the companies themselves have shut down in Iran due to US sanctions. It also clarifies that sanctions do not prohibit anti-censorship and anti-spying software to be sent out of the US to Iranians.
A good starting point for lawmakers seeking to find a new course on Iran is to first do no harm. The growing movement for change in Iran is historic, and it represents a tectonic shift in the political dynamic there. When Washington feels the need to take a page out of the sanctions playbook, more than anything else it should discriminate between the government and the people. Holding human rights abusers accountable for their crimes by freezing their bank accounts and denying them travel visas is a perfectly valid form of international pressure -- and it doesn't risk stifling civil society the way blanket sanctions would.
Beyond smarter sanctions, though, the US needs to start exercising smart power in Iran. This means identifying areas in which our current policies are counterproductive -- and getting out of our own way. For example, the world recognized what a crucial role social media services like Twitter and Facebook played in the events in Iran this summer, yet current US sanctions actually prohibit Americans from providing Internet communications software to the Iranian people. Microsoft and Google have both shut down instant messenger services because their programs are enabled by a download not authorized for export to Iran under US law. The same can be said for anti-surveillance software that allows Iranian users to surf the web free of government spying.
Just this summer, the Senate authorized $20 million for the development of software and other programs that allow users in Iran to bypass government censorship and monitoring efforts. But current laws still prohibit an American from sending these programs to Iran!
Did you know that after one of Iran's most terrible natural disasters -- the 2003 earthquake in Bam that killed over 25,000 people -- the Iranian government sought advice from American engineers to reinforce thousands of primary schools around the country to make them more earthquake-proof? Sadly, that type of assistance was deemed "dual-use" under US sanctions, and the Americans were barred from making the trip.
These and countless other examples reinforce the conclusion that America's approach to Iran over the past three decades has been shockingly myopic. Many avenues exist for the US to foster goodwill among the Iranian population, and even to provide them with the tools they need to bring about positive change in their political system, yet we continue to put up barriers to greater cooperation.
As policymakers consider next steps on Iran, the Iranian people are sure to continue their struggle to have their voices heard. For the future of US-Iran cooperation and for the security of the region, US lawmakers should stand with the Iranian people, rather than continuing to stand on their backs.