April 1, 2011 | Washington Post

Beyond Iran Sanctions

On Wednesday a new organization came on the scene:

Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute today announced the creation of an Iran Strategy Task Force, Beyond Sanctions: The Next Iran Strategy. Convening leading scholars and analysts, the joint task force will formulate new approaches to dealing with Iran and make recommendations after meeting with key policymakers in the Obama Administration, Members and Staff in the U.S. Congress, other experts from the U.S. and abroad, and the diplomatic community.

Some Iran gurus think sanctions can be made to work, Mark Dubowitz and Laura Grossman write:

In addition to imposing serious sanctions, the administration would be advised to communicate more effectively with the Hill and the non-governmental organizations that support its cause. One source who asked to remain anonymous suggested that the choice of a Belarusian company had more to do with the “ripeness” of the information than any deliberate strategy to focus on easy targets and avoid difficult choices on tough ones.

The administration should also identify loopholes in Iran sanctions laws and move quickly to fill them by executive order. The sanctions game is a dynamic one, and every U.S. measure produces an Iranian countermeasure. Executive orders are finer and more nimble instruments than legislation, and the administration can use them to show that it is serious about enforcing the law.

But when a group talks about what to do “beyond” sanctions it is clear that some think sanctions, no matter how well enforced, won’t be enough. I asked one of the group’s leaders, Josh Block, a longtime pro-Israel Democrat, about sanctions and what can be done to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Are sanctions “working”?

Sanctions are a tool for exerting pressure. They are not an end in themselves. The financial sanctions and pressure pioneered by Stuart Levey have hurt the regime’s ability to trade, increased its sense of isolation and undermined its economy. The Iranian regime has also been surprised by the effect of the recent U.S. sanctions and by how widely they have been copied in the European Union. Interestingly, just the recent threat of E.U. human rights sanctions, following on U.S. human rights sanctions, has had an effect.

Doesn’t a credible threat of force need to be there?

Again, the threat or the use of force is a tactic, a tool at the United States’ disposal. As Libya and Iraq demonstrate, this tactic is best deployed as part of a strategy. One of the things the task force will have to consider is how that implicit threat, which remains an explicit option for the West, is manifested without playing into the regime’s hands or damaging the regime’s opponents.

I don’t think National Security Adviser Tom Donilon could have been clearer when he said this week in a speech at Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, “President Obama has also long understood the regional and international consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons’ state. That is why we are committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” And in case people missed it, seven sentences later, he said, “There are no shortcuts and we will not take our eye off the ball. Even with all the events unfolding in the Middle East, we remain focused on the strategic imperative of ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.”

That said, we are focused on issues beyond the threat of Iran’s nuclear pursuit. We are interested in the conventional threat that Iran poses to the region, and the impact of its effort to extend its sphere of influence, to purse regional hegemony, and we are interested in human rights issues. These are the reasons that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon. If Libya had a bomb, who would have stopped Gaddafi? How many would the regime in Tehran murder to remain in power if it had nuclear weapons? These underlying dynamics deserve to be assessed and ideas put forward.

I think it was Sen. Scoop Jackson (D-Wash.) who once said, “A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.” Indeed.

On the diplomatic front, what can be done to isolate Iran?

There is increased criticism of the regime’s atrocious human rights record here and in Europe. President Obama’s strong Nowruz (Iranian New Year) statement was a great example of that. We could, among many things, take that further and have a full international campaign for the human rights of Iranians that will raise the issue in every venue possible and at every opportunity. We did it with the Soviets; we can do it with Iran.

What should we do to promote regime change?

It seems obvious the Iranian people want regime change. They voted that way in 2009. One of the subjects we will discuss is how we can help Iranian activists hold to account the Iranian regime that violently suppressed its people after stealing an election. The key principle here is that Iranians should have the right to freely and fairly choose their own government. That is the right that the Islamic Republic has denied for the last 31 years. It is particularly encouraging to hear Tunisian and Egyptian activists say that they were inspired by the courage of Iranians in 2009. The Middle East is changing. Iran’s junior partner, the Assad dynasty in Syria, is being shaken by protests. The secret police and discredited clerics that run Iran today need to feel the repercussions of international illegitimacy.

Block’s group certainly is thinking strategically about these issues. That is fortunate, given the administration’s obsession with its means (e.g. sanctions) to the exclusion of the results it has obtained.

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