More Iranian Sanctions for What Purpose?
When yet more sanctions are always the answer, one has to ask why.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with a Trumpian title (“Build an Iranian Sanctions Wall”) on April 2, Mark Dubowitz acknowledges that the principal purpose of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran is to foster the regime’s collapse. Left unsaid is that regime change is also Dubowitz’s own thinly cloaked goal for Iran. Blocking any future administration from returning to the 2015 nuclear deal is his newest justification for piling on more sanctions. Unwise in so many ways, it could also provoke Iran into violating the deal itself and thereby start a spiral to war.
Here is his stated premise: Further penalizing Iran on grounds of support for terrorism, human rights violations, and any other malign behavior would create so much economic pain that Iran would have to capitulate. It would give in to all 13 of the demands imposed to date by the Trump administration, including that it abandon uranium enrichment forever, end missile testing, stop supporting Hizballah, and improve human rights (presumably measured by a different yardstick than that used for Saudi Arabia). Dubowitz apparently would also add a 14th demand by sanctioning Iranian corruption.
The demands on Iran are unattainable because they require unconditional surrender. Those who know the Islamic Republic and the people of Iran know they will not capitulate on every front like this. They may improve human rights (a goal of President Hassan Rouhani unrelated to foreign pressure), but Iranians are surely aware that no improvement will be sufficient for those in Washington who are unalterably opposed to the Islamic Republic. Iran may continue to cut back financial support to Hizballah, but it will not cut off an organization that is so integral to its foreign and defense policy. The United States cannot even persuade Europeans to take sides against Hizballah. How can Washington expect Tehran to denounce the group that it has fostered?
The other reason the leverage argument fails is that sanctions are easy to apply and hard to remove. Indeed, this difficulty is the very reason Dubowitz argues that terrorist designations and other measures be imposed now, to impede the negotiation flexibility of future administrations. The Trump administration’s April 8 designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization adds little to the sanctions pressure already being applied against the Guard Corps and puts U.S. servicemembers operating in the Middle East in somewhat greater danger due to Iran’s retaliatory designation of U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization. Worse, multiplying sanctions as Dubowitz advises also impedes Trump’s own options and those of any Republican successor.
Suppose, for a moment, that Iran did make significant changes to its human rights behavior or stopped providing missiles to Houthi rebels, who are far less important to Iran’s deterrence posture than Hizballah. The United States should want to encourage more such positive moves by rewarding them. But Dubowitz’s prescription would make it hard to do so. The policy flexibility that Trump has employed vis-à-vis North Korea, by exclusively focusing on the nuclear and missile threat, would be lost to any Iran policy.
Knowing this, the Iranians would have little incentive to moderate their behavior. With diplomacy less effective a tool, military options will rise in prominence as a means for resolving issues with Iran. Needless to say, the unrelenting sanctions policy would also sharpen U.S. conflicts with allies and partners, particularly in Europe.
As shortsighted as the overall theme of Dubowitz’s argument is, certain of the specific measures advocated in the op-ed are astoundingly ill-conceived. Dubowitz calls, for example, for “paying more Iranians to go on strike through a covert fund run by the Central Intelligence Agency.” As others have noted, this gives the regime strong reason to believe that the CIA is already funding labor union strikes in Iran. For an op-ed that purports to support such labor activists, associating them with U.S. intelligence paints a bulls-eye on their backs.
The op-ed is also flawed by factual mistakes that aim to paint Iran in the worst possible light, all the better to fan a U.S. policy of regime change. It is simply not true that Iran has “become more hostile since Mr. Rouhani’s election in 2013.” According to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, for example, Iranian fast boats stopped harassing U.S. Navy ships in August 2017. It is also not true that “key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs … begin to lapse in 2020.” In reality, nuclear constraints only begin to loosen in 2023, per Article A.3 of the agreement. And it is an exaggeration, at the very least, to suggest that new sanctions are needed to keep international firms from entering Iran. They already are deterred from doing so, and firms that started doing business in Iran after the nuclear deal was inked have largely withdrawn. There must be some other reason for adding new sanctions.
Imposing new sanctions would also push Iran toward abandoning the nuclear deal. Knowing that pulling out would trigger economic penalties is a key reason Iran is sticking to its obligations under the deal even though Trump unilaterally abandoned America’s. For the United States to multiply sanctions anyway obviates this disincentive. This, of course, is a purposeful part of the plan: to goad Iran into missteps that would both sink the nuclear deal forever and pave the way for military conflict.
While Dubowitz nastily denigrates pro-diplomacy Democrats as being “pro-Tehran,” it would be equally insulting to label all advocates of dialed-up sanctions as being “pro-war.” But as National Security Adviser John Bolton made clear before taking up his current post, military action is the preferred outcome for a significant number of them. Pressing for massive new sanctions paves the way to that path whether Dubowitz wants it or not.
As the CEO of an organization that purports to defend democracies, Dubowitz’s ideas for blocking a future president from carrying out election promises is a curious subversion of a democratic norm. If preventing diplomacy is such a good idea, Trump should campaign on it, and let the voice of the people decide.
Mark Fitzpatrick is an associate fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and co-author of Uncertain Future: The JCPOA and Iran’s nuclear and missile programs (2019).