If something works once, why not do it again?
That’s the putative logic behind a congressional move to impose new sanctions against Iran. By reducing Iran’s oil exports by more than half, existing sanctions have compelled Iran to agree to preliminary limits to its nuclear program. So, the thinking goes, additional penalties will produce greater, long-term limits.
So far, so good. Only two problems: The theory doesn’t quite hold, and it also ignores reality.
As for the theory: Punishment produces results when the recipient has an expectation that compliance will end the punishment. Senate Bill 1881, which with 59 co-sponsors already has almost enough support to withstand a threatened veto by President Barack Obama, would strip Iran of that expectation.
The reality is also awkward. Under the legislation, sanctions aimed at eliminating all Iranian oil exports would take effect unless the U.S. president certified that Iran was meeting various conditions. They go beyond Iran’s nuclear program, beyond the terms of the interim nuclear deal Iran and world powers completed this week, beyond even the realm of the possible.
Specifically, the president would have to certify that Iran has not conducted tests for a ballistic missile with a range exceeding 500 kilometers (310 miles). No time span is given, so such tests in the past arguably would qualify. The president would also have to declare that Iran has had no direct or indirect involvement in terrorist acts against the U.S. or U.S. targets. Again, no time period is specified, and Iran has certainly committed such acts in the past. By requiring Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment capability, the bill also dictates parameters for a final nuclear deal that contradict the terms of the interim deal.
In an election year, both Republican and Democratic supporters are casting the measure as tough on Iran and as increasing the chances of a deal.
They are right on the first count and wrong on the second. If the bill becomes law, Iran will correctly understand it as a means of subverting the Obama administration’s diplomatic effort to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal. Iran’s leaders have threatened to abandon negotiations altogether if the bill passes, but even if they don’t, making progress will become difficult if not impossible.
If negotiations fail, the U.S. almost surely will be blamed, weakening its ability to maintain the unprecedented international sanctions against Iran that it has orchestrated. Without those, Iran’s economy can get by, no matter how restrictive U.S. sanctions are. In which case, the bill’s sponsors wouldn’t have even theoretical justifications for their measure, much less realistic ones.
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