Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are scheduled to vote today on a new Iran sanctions bill that is aimed at cutting Iran’s oil exports by another 1 million barrels over the next year. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously in support of the bill, and it is expected to garner overwhelming bipartisan support in the full House. The House will be sending the right message at precisely the right time to the Iranian regime.
Strong bipartisan support for tougher oil sanctions indicates a broadly shared understanding that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will succeed and military strikes on Iranian facilities avoided only if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is convinced that the flow of oil revenues needed to sustain his regime will be cut off. Islamic Republic officials have acknowledged that Iranian oil revenues have dropped 45 percent since 2011 because of international trade sanctions imposed as a result of Iran’s nuclear program.
Some observers, however, argue that the timing of these new sanctions could not be worse because it would send all the wrong signals to the new so-called "moderate" president of the Islamic Republic who will begin his work on Aug. 3. President-elect Hasan Rouhani, they assert, is the last hope for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute. This view rests on a fundamental misconception that by now should be apparent to U.S. policymakers.
This underlying misconception is that a new "moderate" president can be expected to fulfill a campaign promise of pursuing "a policy of peace and reconciliation" and thus resolve the nuclear dispute that has been at a stalemate for the past 10 years. Six of the seven candidates for president were known hard-liners, and one, Rouhani, was presented as a "moderate." Rouhani has been a member of the Assembly of Experts since 1999, a member of the Expediency Council since 1991, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council since 1989, and head of the Center for Strategic Research since 1992. All these organizations are under the direct supervision of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and all members are trusted and loyal underlings of Khamenei. More to the point, the reality in Khamenei-controlled Iran is that throughout these years, neither a "reformist" nor a "hard-line" president has ever played a role in the nuclear negotiations. The real decision-maker on the nuclear negotiating strategy and acceptable outcome is and always has been Khamenei, the supreme leader, who inherited final authority on all issues when he succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
The record over the past decade demonstrates that only the imposition of oil sanctions has influenced Khamenei’s public statements, let alone his behavior. The European Union and later the U.N. Security Council held a series of negotiations with Iranian representatives for years on an agreement to put constraints on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and prevent it from developing a nuclear arsenal. Khamenei consistently and deliberately prolonged the negotiations by setting unreasonable and unacceptable preconditions. He remained defiant, and his presidential mouthpiece at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, likened their nuclear program to a train without breaks. The mild sanctions adopted by the Security Council during the course of these negotiations tended to affect the Iranian people far more than the regime. They were dismissed by the regime as torn pieces of paper. The nuclear program went ahead full speed while billions of dollars in oil revenue continued to flow into the regime’s coffers.
Khamenei’s concern for the welfare of the Iranian people is reflected in the regime’s egregious human rights record. When Iranians decided to voice their opposition to Khamenei’s policies in 2009 and over 3 million Iranians marched in the streets of Tehran in protest, Ahmadinejad, Khamenei’s then-selected president, referred to them as "dust and dirt," a contempt for the Iranian people shared by the leaders of the regime. The peaceful post-2009 election protests were violently crushed by Khamenei’s security forces. Many peaceful protesters were killed on the streets and in prisons. Thousands were arrested, many of whom are still in confinement. Iran became more of a police state than ever before.
As Khamenei’s regime amassed the largest oil revenues in the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency — over $800 billion — the Iranian people became poorer. The inflow of petrodollars to the regime was not used on any domestic programs to relieve the burdens on the Iranian people or even to fund desperately needed improvements in the Iranian oil sector. Instead, regime corruption grew to epic proportions. Almost 250 cases of embezzlement were reported in one year alone, the largest of which involved a sum of $3 billion. The Syrian government, Hezbollah, and other dictators and terrorist organizations were beneficiaries of Khamenei’s generosity, but not the Iranian people.
The evidence to date demonstrates that only the imposition of tough oil sanctions will influence Khamenei’s public statements and his behavior. One year after American-led sanctions were imposed on the regime’s oil sector, Khamenei changed his tone in the 2013 election. First, he presented the Iranian people with a list of seven presidential candidates, selected by his Guardian Council, and asked them to vote "even if they are for some reasons opposed to the regime." Then Khamenei took another bold step by announcing publicly that while he is not optimistic about negotiations with the United States, he did not forbid it in the past years concerning specific issues such as Iraq. Khamenei was implying that he is not opposed to negotiations with the "Great Satan." Yet in the same speech, he made clear that the nuclear negotiators should pursue talks in a way that allows the nuclear program to continue unimpeded.
In the final analysis, the only diplomatic instrument that shows any likelihood of succeeding in dealing with Khamenei’s regime is one that cuts off the source of his revenue — oil sanctions. Khamenei has shown that any real change in the behavior of his regime will happen only under financial duress. Unless he is convinced that the inauguration of a so-called moderate president will not delay tougher oil sanctions that cut off his revenue flow, there is little hope for resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically anytime soon. A strong bipartisan House vote this week on tougher oil sanctions will send Khamenei the unmistakable signal that it is in his best interests to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically now.
G. William Heiser was formerly an official in U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff and is currently an advisor to the Iranian Freedom Institute and Confederation of Iranian Students.
Amir Abbas Fakhravar is president of the Iranian Freedom Institute, secretary-general of the Confederation of Iranian Students, and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is currently a research fellow and visiting lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, D.C.