Why New Sanctions on Iran Won't Work

"Sanctions are not a button that can be pushed to strengthen the U.S. position automatically."

The U.S. Senate is considering new sanctions against Iran, despite the Geneva agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 (United States, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) that started on Jan. 20. For the first time in a decade, Iran has agreed to freeze its nuclear program, and take important steps to constrain its ability to create nuclear weapons, such as eliminating or converting its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. The new sanctions bill under consideration by the U.S. Senate, which calls for a deal that will “dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear program,” appears to have strong support. Indeed, the measure’s backers believe sanctions brought the Iranian negotiators to the table and produced the current U.S. success in Geneva. This is only partially correct.

Sanctions did play a role in facilitating the Geneva agreement, but the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president was also a key factor. And as Rouhani seeks to resolve Iran’s nuclear confrontation with the world, new sanctions can only upset the delicate balance he is seeking to establish and maintain at home.

Falsely labeled a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Rouhani is serious about desecuritizing Iranian society and improving the standard of living. He is not a Thomas Jefferson democrat, but a conservative cleric and supporter of the Iranian regime who is pragmatic and levelheaded enough to resolve the nuclear issue. Arriving at some middle ground in negotiations with the P5+1 is clearly the goal, but that goal could be jeopardized by sanctions that push Tehran away from compromise. And a collapse of the deal could be a de facto concession that Iran will one day become a nuclear state.

Rouhani’s diplomatic track has earned the support of more powerful figures such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei because it has the potential to produce positive results for the regime, especially the lifting of sanctions. But the imposition of sanctions after the Geneva deal only demonstrates to Khamenei, and also possibly Rouhani, that Iranian concessions will be met with more pressure. It is then logical for the Iranian regime to become less flexible, especially if there is no release valve for this new pressure.

Supporters of more sanctions may assume that Iran is on its knees, and that only a bit more tightening of the screws could lead Khamenei and company to cry “uncle.” And perhaps the Iranian regime would then agree to dismantle its entire program, the prosanctions crowd reasons. Some may also assume that added sanctions will change Iran’s behavior – including its support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah – in tandem with resolving the nuclear issue. But while the Iranian regime is under great pressure, it is nowhere near collapse. Oil exports may be down and inflation up, but the economic system in Iran still functions, albeit poorly. And it was not just sanctions that damaged Iran’s economy; former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inept management was also to blame.

There is no guarantee that Rouhani’s administration will be able to rid Iran of sanctions, but its technocratic makeup is likely to lead to better economic management. And Rouhani has also provided more breathing room for the regime by decreasing Iran’s international isolation, improving its image, and healing some of the wounds created by the disputed 2009 election. Rouhani has so far failed to reform the political system, free most political prisoners, ease media repression, or tackle Iran’s fundamental economic problems. But his election means that, for now, the Iranian regime is no longer on the ropes.

The regime’s improved position is admittedly hard for many to bear given the Islamic Republic’s inherently intolerant and brutal nature. For evidence of the regime’s unchanged nature, one only has to listen to Ayatollah Khamenei’s speeches blasting the United States and Israel, and witness his regime’s denial of individual rights, especially of those who do not enthusiastically support Khamenei’s “god given” reign.

But Khamenei is not likely to grant Iranians more freedom because he feels economic pressure. And he is not going to abandon Hezbollah, which is a pillar of Iranian power in the Middle East. For the regime, political liberalization and abandoning Hezbollah are just as bad as more sanctions, if not worse. Positive change in Iran will take time, and that change will flow from the Iranian people, and perhaps some of their leaders. Endlessly punishing the regime without a workable strategy may make for good politics at home, but it is not likely to achieve America’s long-term objectives.

The imposition of new sanctions will only make the job of American negotiators more difficult, and perhaps even damage U.S. credibility among the other P5+1 members. The United States, and not Iran, could be viewed as the more intransigent party, winning Tehran more sympathy from Russia and China, which are both itching for sanctions to end.

The rest of the world is watching the nuclear drama carefully, and not only the actions of Iran, but also those of the world’s remaining superpower. China and Russia signed on to sanctions in order to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. They do not like the idea of sanctions being used to influence the foreign policies of “rogue” states opposed to U.S. ambitions and to punish authoritarian regimes similar to their own. Iran and Russia are on the same side in Syria, and may become even closer now that Rouhani is president (Ahmadinejad was too openly critical of Moscow). New U.S. sanctions could actually bolster Iran’s standing among other world powers such as Russia. After all, Rouhani can claim, with justification, that he engaged the United States in good faith, but was only met with more punishment. Iran may then have an easier time convincing other countries that the time has come to loosen the sanctions regime.

Sanctions are not a button that can be pushed to strengthen the U.S. position automatically; they must be used in tandem with diplomacy, and a deeper understanding of Iranian, Chinese and Russian motivations.

Geneva provides a good framework to resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge. And it will buy the United States time to address Iran’s human-rights abuses and its support for terrorism. But these objectives are best addressed one at a time. Sanctions may have had an important effect on negotiations, but it is U.S. diplomacy that will ultimately win the day.

Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: Flickr/Nick Taylor. CC BY 2.0.