Daniel W. Drezner

A Short Q&A on Sanctioning Iran

A Short Q&A on Sanctioning Iran

So I see that Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to brief the Senate on why it should cool it with the Iran sanctions did not go terribly wellAt all

Republican senators sharply criticized the administration’s closed-door presentation to the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, an appeal that was designed to convince them to hold off on a new round of sanctions against Iran. The committee chairman said he was left “undecided.”

“It was an emotional appeal,” Sen. Bob Corker told reporters after the briefing. “I have to tell you, I was very disappointed in the presentation.”

Corker said that senators were given no details of the interim deal being formulated in negotiations between Iran and world powers in Geneva this month. Secretary of State John Kerry briefed the committee, along with Vice President Joe Biden and the State Department’s lead Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman….

“Today is the day I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East,” Kirk said, also comparing the administration to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who signed away the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany in 1938. “How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.”

OK then. 

I’m pretty much a generalist when it comes to international relations, but when it comes to economic sanctions, I’m going to go out on a limb and claim some greater expertise.  Sooo…. here’s a more fact-based Q&A for senators trying to figure out whether they should vote to ratchet up the sanctions on Iran: 

Q:  So what should I do, Dan? 

A:  Well, this depends crucially on what you want the sanctions to accomplish vis-à-vis Iran.  Are you interested in a nuclear deal or something more? 

Q:  For me it’s something more.  I think the regime in Iran is an inherently destabilizing force in the region, and I want the sanctions to force a regime change.  What should I do? 

A:  Oh, then you should totally vote for harsher sanctions.  But after that, go home and find a four-leaf clover and wish for a pony/Batmobile/intimate dinner with Salma Hayek while you’re at it, because those outcomes will be just as likely to happen. 

Repeat after me:  sanctions, on their own, will not lead to a regime change in Iran.  Over the past five years this regime has made it pretty clear what it is willing to do to stay in power. That trumps any ratcheting up of the sanctions.  Economic coercion imposes some serious economic costs on the regime, which is why they’re willing to talk about a nuclear deal.  But that’s a tangible negotiation.  Regime change is more existential threat, and if that’s the goal of the sanctions, then the sanctions will fail and fail spectacularly. 

Q:  I want a nuclear deal, and I believe that it’s the sanctions that got Iran to the negotiating table to begin with.  Therefore, more sanctions will make them more willing to deal, right? 

A:  The marginal impact of the extra sanctions will be outweighed by the fact that you’ve undercut your president, who’s been asking you not to impose extra sanctions.  From Iran’s perspective, there is no point negotiating with the Obama administration if the president can’t get Congress to lift sanctions if a deal is reached.  So this wouldn’t be a very smart gambit.

Q:  I care deeply about Israel’s security, and therefore worry that even negotiating with Iran will be the sequel to Munich 1938.  What should I do? 

A:  Vote for more sanctions.  Then go read up on a) history; and b) the logic of nuclear deterrence. Then go into a corner, feel shame for using dumbass historical analogies, and shut the hell up. 

Q:  I want to see a deal with Iran’s regime, but Tehran’s past record of evading the IAEA and the Obama administration’s distinguished record of bollixing up its Middle East diplomacy have me very, very skittish.  What should I do? 

A:  You raise some valid points — some very valid points.  But it’s not like this will be your only opportunity to vote on these sanctions.  Let the negotiators meet in Geneva next week and see how things plays out.  Link the progress in Geneva to not moving forward on more sanctions. 

Any more questions?