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Senate Passes Iran Sanctions: Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict?

January 29, 2010

American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spokesman Josh Block was quick to laud the Senate’s unanimous voice vote last night passing a comprehensive Iran sanctions bill aimed, among other things, at blocking the gasoline imports that Iran depends on to meet 40% of its needs.  The Iran sanctions bill had been AIPAC’s top legislative priority for several years.

“AIPAC strongly applauds” the Senate action, Block said, and added, “The U.S. and our allies must impose biting diplomatic and economic pressure to try and peaceably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and avoid confronting more distressing alternatives.”

“Peaceable prevention” of “more distressing alternatives” (i.e. “war with Iran”)? That sounds a lot like an FCNL prescription for the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict. Alas, I’m afraid not. The Iran sanctions legislation is more likely to fit the description of former Israel Policy Forum commentator M.J. Rosenberg. When it looked like the Senate was about to move on Iran sanctions in December, Rosenberg asked, “Are there a hundred senators who are ready to fast track a military confrontation with Iran?” The answer last night was yes. To be fair, I think that few senators understand how their vote for Iran sanctions could lead to war, but the possibility is not so far-fetched.

The road from the Iran sanctions bill to war goes like this: The unilateral sanctions that the bill mandates have virtually no chance of changing Iran’s behavior (at least in a positive way) on its nuclear program or anything else. (My favorite authority for this is John Bolton, who pronounces sanctions “well-intentioned” but ineffective; military action will be required, Bolton says.) Unilateral U.S. sanctions, moreover, especially provisions in the bill that call for the U.S. to penalize foreign companies in allied countries that trade with Iran, make agreement on multilateral sanctions much less likely. So the bill mandates unilateral sanctions that won’t work, and annoys U.S. allies, making more effective multilateral sanctions less likely. You see where this is going? Sanctions must be tried and seen to fail before the political support for war can be mustered. From this perspective the best sanctions are those least likely to succeed. These are the kind the Senate approved last night.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) admitted last night that “frequently these kinds of unilateral sanctions measures make little or no difference.” But he said these could be different. Yes, they could, but by preparing the way for war, not by prompting Iran to be more responsive to international concerns over its nuclear program.

The real action for the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict with Iran is taking place not in Washington, but in Vienna, at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA’s new head, Yukiya Amano, said earlier today that negotiations with Iran over a draft deal to exchange its enriched uranium for reactor fuel were continuing. “The proposal is on the table. Dialogue is continuing,” he said, referring to the U.S. proposal that Iran accepted in principle last October but subsequently rejected and offered a counter proposal. Negotiations are much more likely than new sanctions to end the nuclear standoff with Iran. Congress would have helped a lot more by passing a bill encouraging the administration to continue diplomatic engagement with Iran instead of taking a step toward the next Middle East war.

  1. David Hartsough permalink
    February 2, 2010 4:38 pm

    Thanks for this very helpful analysis. Guess we have a lot of work ahead of us in educating Congress about prevention of deadly conflict and the peaceful alternatives to Confrontation and War. Keep up the good work!

  2. Barb Olson permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:18 pm

    AIPAC strikes again.

  3. Sister Elaine Gremminger permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:39 pm

    I am opposed to sanctions for Iran. The have never worked in the past and will not work now. Diplomacy is the only way to go. We need to build a friendlier world where people respect each other and talk out differences.

  4. Janet Lamkin permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:53 pm

    I feel Diplomacy is the right course of action because sanctions would punish the people at a time when there is a strong movement within the country to change the government from within. Sanctions would not support this grassroot effort by the Iranian people.

  5. Angeline Walczyk permalink
    February 2, 2010 8:32 pm

    We only show our true humaness when we act like civilized beings. One of these ways is to face our difference at the table eye to eye and talk ourselves into loving, respecting and assisting another to recognize other alternatives.

  6. Jim Fine permalink
    February 3, 2010 11:17 am

    UPDATE: Mediation by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Yukia Amano, reinforced according to press reports by a discreet diplomatic charm offensive by the Japanese government, may have borne fruit. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced yesterday that “We have no problem sending our enriched uranium abroad,” seeming to agree to exchange Iran’s low-enriched uranium for fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes.

    The initial U.S. reaction was dismissive. A State Department spokesman said the U.S. was “not prepared to change the deal. We are not interested in renegotiating it.” But a short while later a White House official said, “If Iran has something new to say, we are prepared to listen.”

    (It’s not only the U.S. that has trouble getting its act together when dealing with this issue. Yesterday Iranian officials were all over the place on the question, but so far none has gainsaid Mr. Ahmadinejad. It’s clear that there are conflicting views in Iran about how to respond to international concerns over its nuclear program. It’s equally clear that there are conflicting views within the Obama administration and that almost all of the public pressure is pushing a hardline approach.)

  7. Mary K. Lund permalink
    February 3, 2010 2:57 pm

    The US posture toward Iran seems to repeat the mistakes that brought us to war with Iraq. Exactly why does The West fear or suspect that Iran is developing nuclear weapons? What evidence backs the fears? As signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Iran has rights to develop nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes. They claim they have no plans for nuclear weapons. Pres. Obama has acknowledged this. The 2006 or 2007 discovery of the unfinished nuclear plant – although recently revealed publicly – may have been a disputed interpretation of Iran’s responsibilities. The UN has inspected. Deja vu, anyone?
    It reminds me of the US blasting of Saddam Hussein as a liar in his Dec. 2002 declaration on WMDs, as erratic, as a conduit to terrorists, etc. Iran sits between US and NATO forces on its borders. Why should it trust any negotiations with The West?
    Sanctions will not work – then what?

  8. Wildthing permalink
    February 3, 2010 3:21 pm

    So didn’t Bush say, next on to Iran, shortly after our quick victory in Iraq? Is our regional strategy bipartisan? Were they not called one of the Axis of Evil? Has that changed with Obama or are we continuing the agenda with a Good Cop routine? Iran has good reason to want deterrance in this climate. The disorder in Iran over the color coded elections certainly gives some credence to outside forces of destabilization but of course with some of the events economically in this country recently outlined in a recent Paulson book release there may be forces doing the same here.
    We must get out of our cold war strategic logic and into the 21st century logic of interdependence and learning to live within the means of our planet and learning how to balance body and mind without the resort to the dominance and territoriality of war justified by the logic of acceptable collateral damage! If we do not, we may be the cause of our own extinction.

  9. Ellen N. Duell permalink
    February 3, 2010 5:05 pm

    I am in favor of diplomatic overtures to Iran. I am certainly aghast at the hanging of dissidents there. However, that does not mean that the U.S. should continually antagonize Iran; we have been “the bully on the block” in Iraq.

    We must not allow Israel to push us into taking aggressive military action toward Iran. We should align ourselves with the people of Israel who are working actively for peaceful relations, rather than with Israel’s military stance.

    We must downsize our own nuclear arsenal–it threatens the world. Who are we to dictate to Iran?

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