Out of Gas: Why Sanctions on Iran Are Still the Best Option

Out of Gas: Why Sanctions on Iran Are Still the Best Option

Following the passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act in the U.S. House of Representatives today, it’s worth considering the following facts in response to those who claim that the legislation will lead to a "rally around the flag" in Iran and who argue only for targeted sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Before the Iranian regime’s brutal effort to crush the protests following the June 12 presidential election, an Iranian cab driver who couldn’t buy gasoline would probably curse the Americans. After witnessing the brutal crackdown and his fellow citizens dying in the streets, he now might very well blame the regime.

Targeted sanctions are, for the most part, a fiction. If sanctions against America targeted the S&P 500, the American people would surely suffer. The United States can’t effectively sanction the IRGC, which controls one-third of the Iranian economy, without hurting the Iranian people.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s efforts against Iran have already been very harmful to the Iranian economy and, as a result, to the Iranian people. Yet, the Iranian people are not blaming Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey for the terrible economy despite the regime’s best efforts to convince them to do so. Indeed, since June 12, we have heard Iranian dissidents increasingly wonder whether some sanctions — specifically gasoline sanctions — could be used to buttress the democracy movement in Iran. In private, some important dissidents have said that they would definitely welcome some sanctions so long as they were levied in the name of Iranian democracy.

There is ample precedent for this: Most South African dissidents were strong supporters of the embargo against the apartheid regime even though those sanctions unquestionably hurt millions of South Africans, especially those most economically disadvantaged. Sanctions are absolutely not a cure-all for iniquitous or hostile regimes; there are issues — for example, Iran’s support to terrorist organizations — where sanctions may well send the wrong message about American resolve to defend itself and its allies. But with the Islamic Republic, as a means of addressing nuclear weaponization and democracy, gasoline sanctions are a sensible approach that might well have productively convulsive effects.

It’s precisely because of the possibility that gasoline sanctions could be so consequential that they’re worth pursuing. We suspect senior Iranian officials have been so loud in mocking the effectiveness of these sanctions because the regime knows it still does not have the requisite reserve capacity — despite its much ballyhooed efforts — to stop such sanctions from fomenting even more distaste for the regime on the Iranian street.

The options to deal with Iranian nukes are not between good and bad but between bad and worse.  We don’t like sanctions. But they are a peaceful alternative that just might put significant pressure on Tehran. It’s worth a try.