A woman and her two children on their farm in south Iran. Sanctions against Iran would harm its people much more than they would cripple its government, according to critics. (Photo: Mahi Teshneh / flickr)
Twin bills recently introduced in Congress would significantly expand US sanctions on Iran, pressuring global energy companies to divest from the country, blocking its gas imports and urging the president to sever investments in the central bank of Iran. They would also authorize the president to impose sanctions on US businesses with ties to Iranian petroleum.
Critics say the divestments would cripple the already troubled Iranian economy, with the brunt of the impact coming down on the population. The country's government could emerge relatively scot-free.
"As past cases of sanctions have confirmed - such as in Iraq, Cuba and yes, Iran - civilians more than regime targets feel their impact," Farrah Hassen, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Truthout. "If these proposed sanctions were successful in leading to shortages of petrol in Iran, then that would certainly affect the Iranian people - and ironically, the language in both the House and Senate version of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act takes the time to say that their concerns are a result of the 'actions of the Government of Iran,' and that Americans 'have feelings of friendship for the people of Iran.' But when Iranian people feel the brunt of sanctions, are they really going to like us and our government back?"
Even some of the bills' supporters admit their humanitarian impact. At an American Enterprise Institute conference coinciding with the proposal of the legislation, conservative scholar Fred Kagan laid out the cost of sanctions.
"Look, we need to be honest about this," Kagan said. "Iranians are going to die if we impose additional sanctions."
The bills were introduced in both the House and Senate at the end of April, in the lead-up to the American Israeli Political Action Committee conference in early May, at which activists and politicians vocally backed the legislation.
"[Energy companies] will all be offered a simple choice," said AIPAC president, David Victor, at the conference. "You can do business with Iran. You can do business with America. You cannot do both."
The statement was an echo of Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, one of the Senate sponsors of the bill, who said bluntly upon its introduction, "You can either do business with Iran's $250 billion economy or our $13 trillion economy, but not both."
Since the legislation threatens international energy corporations as much as it threatens Iran, it runs the risk of alienating our allies, according to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. In fact, those global companies may well be more vulnerable to the economic impact of the bill than Iran's government is.
"There is a perception that Iran is very vulnerable when it comes to its gasoline imports," Parsi said. "That was likely true a few years back, but ever since the idea of gasoline sanctions have floated around in DC, Tehran seems to have prepared itself by increasing its refinery capabilities. Armenia and Russia are currently discussing building a new one in Armenia together with Iran. At the end of the day, these sanctions, if passed, would not only hit Iran, but primarily the companies of US allies. It's an approach that is closer to the Bush administration's foreign policy philosophy than that of Obama."
Beyond their economic impacts, sanctions could put a cramp in the Obama administration's political goals. The stated purpose of the new legislation is to "enhance United States diplomatic efforts with respect to Iran by expanding economic sanctions against Iran." However, according to Parsi, sanctions run the risk of cutting off negotiations before they start.
"This would be a major blow to the President's agenda," Parsi said. "We cannot realistically expect that Obama can begin the diplomatic process - which requires more trust and confidence building - if the Democratic leadership in Congress pursues a completely contradictory policy. The idea that the new sanctions would add to American leverage lacks credibility since the primary effect of passing the sanctions would be to prevent diplomacy to take place to begin with."
The Obama administration has already laid the groundwork for an improved relationship with Iran. In March, President Obama released a video wishing Iran's "people and leaders" a happy Nowruz, and he also invited Iran to participate in the international summit on Afghanistan. Congress's advocacy of sanctions is a step in the opposite direction, lending credibility to Iranian hardliners and removing incentives to negotiations, according to Hassen.
"What would be the quid pro quo for Iran to accede to US demands that it end its nuclear program and its support for resistance groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, if it knows that it will be subject to unilateral US sanctions whether it cooperates or not?" Hassen said. "Iran wants direct engagement with the US - negotiations, diplomacy, not more of the same policy of the past."
Hassen stresses that, despite the urgency of the legislation's language and AIPAC's alarmist rhetoric, the UN's nuclear watchdog still has not found any evidence that Iran is attempting to use its nuclear facilities for military purposes. The sanctions legislation assumes that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
Many of the bill's supporters cite sanctions as a move toward protecting Israel's safety. Dick Durbin, the Senate's Democratic whip and a co-sponsor of the bill, spoke at the AIPAC conference of the "threat of nuclear weapons in Iran" as a critical danger to Israel. "If Iran continues to defy the demands of the international community to suspend its enrichment of uranium, the US must impose increased sanctions and work with other nations and the U.N. to prevent a nuclear armed Iran," Durbin said.
However, according to Parsi, harsh steps against Iran would not ameliorate Israel's problems.
"I personally believe that diplomacy will not only benefit America and the region, but it will benefit Israel as well," Parsi said. "Creating obstacles to diplomacy, as a result, is not good for Israel's security."