The Case Against New Iran Sanctions

Give negotiations a chance


Secretary of State John Kerry briefed the Senate Banking Committee today behind closed doors, where he was expected to argue against a push by some senators to impose new sanctions on Iran after the latest round of negotiations between Iran and the so-called "P5+1" (the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the U.S., the UK, Russia, France, and China, plus Germany) ended without a deal. That led Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez to declare that it appeared American negotiators wanted to deal more than their Iranian counterparts. "[W]e seem to want the deal almost more than the Iranians. And you can't want the deal more than the Iranians, especially when the Iranians are on the ropes," Menendez told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week while arguing for renewed sanctions against Iran.

Kerry has called that idea a mistake. He acknowledges he voted for sanctions against Iran several times, but considers any vote now "a vote for or against diplomacy." Kerry was wrong to have voted for sanctions then but is right to call their renewal a mistake now. 

Despite the assertions of supporters of sanctions, it's not clear that sanctions against Iran up to this point have helped bring talks about. Iran has faced some kind of U.S. sanctions since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They were eased somewhat in the late 1990s after Iran elected the relatively moderate reformist Mohammad Khatami. The subsequent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the resumption of uranium enrichment by Iran in 2006 yielded a new round of sanctions. Iran made several proposals about its nuclear development program in the few years before that to appease Western powers worried about Iran trying to build nuclear weapons. Talks until 2006 were between Iran and France, Germany, and the UK (the "E3"). The U.S., China, and Russia joined that year to form the P5+1, known in Europe as E3+3. The UN passed a number of resolutions in the following years attempting to pressure Iran into a more favorable negotiating position through tougher sanctions, the last of which was passed in 2010.

What the sanctions have done is turn the screws on an already screwy command economy in Iran. In a poor economic climate, political leaders like Ahmadinejad turned to Iran's nuclear program as a patriotic project, using Iran's recalcitrance to elicit a rally around the flag effect. Along with the ruling ayatollahs, Iran's political leadership could blame entirely on American-led sanctions economic woes that are in no small part self-inflicted. Iran's newly elected president, the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani, may have provided Iran's political leadership the cover to tone down the nuclear brinksmanship without losing the last of a broken public's support. In theory, sanctions are meant to pressure political leaders to act in a way favorable to those imposing sanctions. In practice, they are exploited for political advantage not just in the sanctioning country but in the sanctioned as well.

Sanctions, then, at best offer little, and at worse can send countries down a path to war. U.S. sanctions against countries from Cuba to North Korea primarily affect the public of those countries far more than the political leaders, who are generally able to weather the most sustained sanctions effort, and even use them to consolidate more power and stunt attempts at reform. In the case of Iraq, a decade of sanctions prompted by the West's fear of WMDs led to a disastrous American invasion of the country. Saddam Hussein did not believe the U.S. would attack over concerns Iraq had WMDs, but was apparently certain Iran would do so if it knew he possessed no such weapons. The U.S. invasion of Iraq certainly changed the calculus for strongmen contemplating non-conventional weapons, but it did not change the fundamentals that drive conflict escalation. Were it not for a throw-away comment by John Kerry, the U.S. may have followed a series of red lines into a war in Syria.

The White House may not openly acknowledge the lessons of the Syria situation, but it is acutely aware of them. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney drew the dotted line between new sanctions while Iran appears to be negotiating in good faith and the prospect of war. "[T]he American people do not want a march to war," Carney said at yesterday's daily press briefing.  "And it is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is — is — is disallowed or ruled out, what options, then, do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?"

American intelligence officials have been predicting that Iran was just a few years from acquiring nuclear weapons since at least 1996. The U.S. interest in the issue is dubious at best. The European powers whose involvement in negotiations with Iran precedes America's have clearer interests. Germany, for example, is one of Iran's largest trading partners, and the countries would likely fall within range of any kind of imagined Iranian nuclear weapon. Israel claims the clearest interest. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent last week warning about giving Iran the "deal of the century." Israel considers the possibility Iran might acquire nuclear weapons an existential threat and its political leadership is convinced that that's Iran's intent. Nevertheless, a report in the Jerusalem Post earlier this month claimed Israeli officials met with Iranian counterparts as well as representatives from other Arab countries and the U.S. to discuss nuclear weapons in the region. Israel is widely believed to be the only power in the region with nuclear weapons. Iran does not officially recognize the state of Israel and even the new president wouldn't repudiate Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denialism. Nevertheless, both countries would benefit from regional stability, and are incentivized by circumstance to try to work toward it.

The United States has no such incentives, and so the Iran issue becomes something to politicize, as it has been. The U.S. has appointed itself an arbiter over a thoroughly regional security issue. While it is in this role, it should avoid complicating good-faith efforts at negotiations. The U.S. has been meddling in Iran since at least 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and return the shah to power, an event that led to the 1979 revolution that ushered in a decidedly anti-American political establishment. It's unlikely the U.S. will simply stop meddling now, but it is possible for it to play a constructive role in resolving the nuclear dispute. It won't be a Nixon in China moment, but John Kerry in Geneva could yet be a major step toward eventually normalizing relations with Iran. He, and more importantly the negotiations, ought to be given the chance without the Senate's attempt to scuttle them by playing tough guy in a situation the U.S. shouldn't be in in the first place.

NEXT: Syrian Troops Capture Damascus Suburb

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. AIPAC gets what AIPAC wants.

    Yes I know… JOOOOOOOOSSS

    1. pretty much. What other lobbying group can unanimously receive both democrat and republican support?

      The problem is rooted in our culture. Both the government and church has been able to drive the pro-Israel narrative. “If you don’t support Israel, then you aren’t a Christian and/or American”….and people actually believe this.

      1. That would explain why America has bombed Iran so much lately…oh wait no you’re full of shit and JOOOOOOSSSS

        1. and libertarians call themselves the free-thinkers of the right….buying into neocon propaganda

          In case you haven’t realized, sanctions are considered an act of war. We’ve been at war with Iran for 30 years.

          1. They’ve been at war with us since violating the US embassy.

            BTW, reflexively yelling out ‘neocon’ is a sure marker of someone who can’t think. It’s basically the peacenazi version of screeching about KOCHS.

          2. when I was in the middle east the favored form of graffiti translated into english read “we knock at the gates of heaven with the skulls of jews”…. Their holy book calls for the decapitation of all jews in their eschatology. you cannot reason with them, there are no moderates you can either fight evil or let it continue its path. sanctions are the same as Britan and France appeasing Nazi-Germany. I hate the use of force to solve situations but the Islamic states must be dissolved for any kind of peace to exist on this planet.

  2. Nothing can get self-righteous “America can do no wrong” jingoism out of Reason commenters like an article about dealing with Iran in less than a “let’s destroy them completely RIGHT NOW” manner.

    I especially like the comments about how the shah was actually good for the Iranian people.

    Somebody get the popcorn.

    1. I especially like the comments about how the shah was actually good for the Iranian people.

      How is that any different from people saying Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad, the Taliban, Karmal were (are in Assad’s case) better for their people?

    2. Your comment appears to be the only hard-lined one on this thread. Am I missing something?

      1. (that was to bassjoe, btw)

    3. The Shah was good for Iran compared to the alternative.

  3. Obamacare is a long, drawn-out PR disaster for the administration. Someone better start rattling some sabers.

  4. Obama to Iran: “If you like your nukes, you can keep your nukes.”

  5. “Give negotiations a chance”

    What a fresh approach! Never been done before!

  6. Dear Israel: please oh please just blow up Iran’s stuff already. It’ll be awesome and we’ll all be happy. Shalom.

  7. If the American people’s will to self-defense and moral self-esteem had not been so thoroughly debased and destroyed by the leftoids, America would have destroyed the Iranian regime (at least) ten years ago.

    In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Ayn Rand Institute ran an essay in the New York Times titled “End States Who Sponsor Terrorism”, by Leonard Peikoff. The Objectivists are right–you cannot defeat evil by refusing to pronounce moral judgment (this is how evil survives: your refusal to condemn it), and the killer states who sponsor terrorism should be wiped from the face of the earth. No more playing whack-a-mole all over the Mid East and North Africa, the Islamic terrorists will not get the message until the West obliterates those who sponsor Islamic terrorism. You end a problem by cutting it off at the root.

    Do I want America to be the policemen of the world? No. I would shut down most of these military bases we have all over the place. With drones, planes and a giant Navy, we don’t need all these bases anyway. Do I think America should tuck its tail between its legs and negotiate with the primordial mystic thugs running Iran? Not. on. your. life. Destroy them, and let the world know that America’s days of appeasement and self-doubt are OVER.

    But that would first require a philosophical revolution, right here.

    1. Are you me by any chance?

    2. The Chinese or Russians would be much better policemen.

      End Pax Americana.

  8. The threat of a nuclear Iran has the Saudis buying nukes from Pakistan.

    To counter this we should end sanctions on Iran.

    Peace for our time.

    1. Peace can only exist if you are willing to stamp out the Islamic religion. Their religion is the way of merciless destruction and lacks the capacity to live peacefully with anyone else. read the koran

  9. Negotiation how about we just leave them to their own devices. If they invade another country that we are truly friends with, which there are none in the region, then if asked we might help otherwise let the rest of the world destroy itself. Of course Iran may not need to attack anyone if allow people to work together.

  10. A frustrated Netanyahu is capable, in my opinion, of a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear capability. Israel has already neutralised the nuclear capability of Iraq and Syria. Iran is a tougher nut, but I would not rule out Israel using nukes to knock out Iran’s enrichment capacity and the like.

  11. Let their own economies destroy themselves, almost every middle eastern nation is Sharia socialist, how long will their own people allow them to continue impovershing the public of countries that should be the centers of wealth and prosperity of our oil-dependent world. Educate their masses on economics and allow the pissed off people to rise up out of the system. once the freedom genie is out of the bottle the psychos of Islam will watch their religion and way of life collapse around them. A little capitalism does wonders for peace.

  12. Informative ! Just to add my thoughts , if your business needs to fill out a a form , my company came across a fillable document here

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.