Recently I was talking with a friend from the military-intelligence world about the mounting pressure on Congress to pass the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act - legislation aimed at "crippling" Iran's civilian economy. Reportedly a House-Senate conference is already informally underway trying to craft a consensus version of the bill, and last week AIPAC sent a message to every Member of Congress urging that IRPSA be enacted "without delay."
I explained that in my view sanctions aimed at civilians were a bad idea, and that sanctions in general, while a potentially powerful tool, do not, on their own constitute a policy. My friend's response? "Sanctions are the sign of a failed policy, period."
He makes a good point. Fundamentally, sanctions are how the US tells a foreign government: we don't like you, we can't convince you to see things our way, and we can't (or aren't ready to) overthrow you - so get ready to feel some pain.
But many people today are operating under the delusion that sanctions are about more than inflicting pain. They seem to believe that the message of sanctions is: you will see things our way or we will sanction you into submission.
Where does this delusion come from? Maybe back in 1960, when the US first imposed sanctions on Cuba, someone could have believed this. But today? Sanctions still haven't worked in Cuba (unless you define "working" as impoverishing the population). They didn't work in Haiti or Iraq. They aren't working today in North Korea, Syria, or Gaza (or even Iran, where far-reaching sanctions have been in place for three decades).
The record is clear: sanctions may make angry Americans and frustrated policymakers feel less impotent, but they don't force regimes to fold or change their behavior, and they don't motivate populations to overthrow their leaders. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect.
Here is where supporters of sanctions will raise, triumphantly, the case of South Africa. But South Africa is the exception that proves the rule. Because South Africa is the one case where sanctions were about supporting the self-identified interests of a large portion of that country's population. In every other case, sanctions have been about promoting US interests, not the interests of the people bearing their brunt. We sanctioned the Castro regime because we refused to tolerate Communism so close to home. We sanctioned Gaza because we rejected any dealings with Hamas. We sanctioned Iraq because we decided that Saddam Hussein had become an irredeemable enemy of the US. We started sanctioning Iran because we decided that the Iranian regime was beyond the pale. And - no surprise - in every case except South Africa, the populations that were expected to rise up and act as tools of US foreign policy obstinately refused to cooperate.
And so we return to Iran.
Historically speaking my friend is right: the US-led Iran sanctions regime - which dates to the bad-old-days of the embassy takeover - signaled the failure of America's Iran policy. We don't need to re-hash the ugly history that led to this failure. It is enough to recognize that thirty years ago the US decided: until something significant changes, we are abandoning policy in favor of sanctions and saber-rattling.
That was then. This is now.
And now Iran represents an acute foreign policy challenge to the US and the world. The kind of challenge that demands sober, rational policy reflecting clearly-defined, well-understood, prioritized objectives. Objectives like getting Iran to abandon any pursuit of nuclear weapons and accept stringent international oversight of its nuclear energy program; to stop supporting terrorist groups; to end activities that undermine US efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan; to cease belligerent anti-Israel rhetoric; and to respect international norms of human rights and civil liberties inside Iran.
Is this a call to end sanctions against Iran? Not at all. I still believe that smart, targeted sanctions can be a powerful tool for putting pressure on Iran, as part of a broader strategy that uses engagement and pressure - bilateral and multilateral. And even if existing sanctions have failed to achieve US foreign policy goals, they unquestionably represent leverage that the US can use as part of a smart, resolute diplomatic strategy today. Can such a strategy work? Maybe. The truth is, nobody knows, because it's never been tried.
But let's not kid ourselves about what adding new sanctions will achieve. New Iran sanctions may represent valuable domestic political currency in the US, and new targeted, multilateral sanctions could have some impact on the margins and send an important message to Iran that the international community is united. But in terms of achieving US foreign policy objectives, new sanctions on their own won't do the job - and unilateral US sanctions targeting civilians will likely backfire.
And more broadly speaking, persisting in making sanctions the primary focus of the US approach to Iran will be a signal of the continuing failure of US policy, not of a new US seriousness to confront this major foreign policy challenge.
Lara Friedman is Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now.