New sanctions miss the target
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
30 Jan 2010 04:09
On Dec. 15, 2009, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the "Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009," which is very similar to the Senate bill. The latter extends sanctions to include companies that build oil and gas pipelines in Iran and provide tankers to move Iran's petroleum. It also prohibits the U.S. government from buying goods from foreign companies that work in Iran's energy sector. So, in effect, the Senate bill imposes sanctions on Iran's entire oil and natural gas industry.
Although Iran has the world's third largest oil reserves, it must import a significant portion of its gasoline to meet demand because it lacks domestic refining capacity. Anticipating gasoline sanctions for at least two years now, the Islamic Republic has been working hard to reduce its dependence on gasoline imports, which has dropped from 40 percent of total consumption to 25-30. At least one new refinery is under construction, which will come online in about two years. In addition, as I described in a previous article, Tehran can take several relatively simple steps to further reduce its dependency on gasoline imports.
Tellingly, even though President Obama warned Iran of "growing consequences" over its nuclear program in his State of the Union address on Wednesday, his administration has not shown a great deal of interest in the legislation.
On December 11, 2009, Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg sent a letter to Senator John F. Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he stated that,
As I testified before the Congress in October, it is our hope that any legislative initiative would preserve and maximize the President's flexibility, secure greater cooperation from our partners in taking effective action, and ultimately facilitate a change in Iranian policies. However, we are entering a critical period of intense diplomacy to impose significant international pressure on Iran. This requires that we keep the focus on Iran. At this juncture, I am concerned that this legislation, in its current form, might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts. In addition to the timing, we have serious substantive concerns, including the lack of flexibility, inefficient monetary thresholds and penalty levels, and blacklisting that could cause unintended foreign policy consequences.
On January 4th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that,
Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering of the ordinary [Iranians] (emphasis mine), who deserve better than what they currently are receiving.
This position was reiterated by Clinton on January 11:
It is clear that there is a relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran... They are in both political and commercial relationships, and if we can create a sanctions track that targets those who actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions.
P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, reiterated the Administration position on January 5th:
As the Secretary said, one possibility is to focus more specifically on the Revolutionary Guards, the IRGC. We're taking a much more prominent role within Iran. We want to do this in a way that can target specific entities within the Iranian Government but not punish the Iranian people (emphasis mine), who are clearly looking for a different relationship with their government.
Other unnamed Administration officials have been quoted as saying that they are opposed to legislation that hurts ordinary people. For example, on Dec. 29, 2009, Paul Richter of the Los Angeles Times reported that,
[U.S.] officials are increasingly concerned that broad sanctions harming ordinary citizens would appear harsh to the outside world and would risk alienating parts of the population with which the West seeks to establish common cause.
Richter quoted an anonymous senior State Department official as saying that, "the discussions [within the State Department] were aimed at making the sanctions as narrow as they can be."
On Dec. 30, 2009, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reported that an anonymous senior Administration official stated that,
We have never been attracted to the idea of trying to get the whole world to cordon off their economy... We have to be deft at this, because it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation -- whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame.
In fact, on Dec. 15, 2009, Richard R. Verma, Assistant Secretary of State for legislative affairs, sent a letter to Senator Carl Levine, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which he stated that,
The Department of State is recommending that the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issue a general license that would authorize downloads of free mass market software by companies such as Microsoft and Google to Iran necessary for the exchange of personal communications and/or sharing of information over the internet such as instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking. This software is necessary to foster and support the free flow of information to individual Iranian citizens and is therefore essential to the national interest of the United States.
Even U.S. business groups warned the administration that the bill would undercut the President's strategy of working with U.S. allies in finding a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program because the legislation targets companies of U.S. allies doing business with Iran. But the neoconservatives, Israel lobby and its allies in the Senate, such as Senator Joseph Lieberman, were firmly behind it. And what the Israeli lobby wants, the Israeli lobby gets. Thus, the legislation was approved. Indeed, the passage of the legislation was praised by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which called for even tougher sanctions.
Though the Administration may be seeking targeted sanctions against the leaders of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), the real power behind the military junta headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the gasoline sanction will hurt only ordinary Iranians who have been struggling to make ends meet, especially since the rigged June 12 presidential election.
At least a million Iranians work in the transportation sector and millions more depend on transportation for their work or business. The agriculture sector, especially in the remote areas of the country, also relies heavily on transportation.
Moreover, it is widely believed in Iran -- and there is considerable evidence to back it up -- that there is a gasoline "Mafia" linked to the hardliners. They sell the gasoline, which is subsidized by the government, to neighboring countries at a much higher price and receive a windfall from these transactions. The sanction would inevitably lead to much higher gasoline prices in Iran. That would only tighten the gasoline Mafia's grip on the market, hence increasing the power that the IRGC and the hardliners already have. This is the opposite effect that the legislation is supposedly intended to have.
Those who pushed hard for the passage of this legislation argued that the resulting hardship would pressure the Iranian people to demand policy changes from the government. But if that were truly the purpose of the legislation (and I highly doubt it), there had been no need for it. There is now little doubt that a great majority of Iranians are deeply angered about what has been happening in Iran in the aftermath of the rigged June 12 presidential election. There have been recurring, often bloody demonstrations, and daily arrests. Political figures and activists, journalists, university students, human rights advocates and ordinary citizens have been the target of hardliners. Dozens have been murdered, both in jail and during demonstrations; two men, Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephew and Professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi, have been assassinated; show trials have been held; unjustified sentences have been handed out; several young people have been hanged and many more raped and sodomized. Many newspapers and other publications have been banned.
What more motivation do the people need?
In fact, it is such developments that have given birth to the Green Movement, which has been gathering strength over the past several months. The Green Movement's leaders -- former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, and former president Mohammad Khatami -- have opposed sanctions, particularly those that only hurt ordinary Iranians. But while the sponsors of the Congress sanction bill pay lip service to the bravery of the Iranian people and their courage to stand up to the hardliners, in practice they hurt them by imposing such sanctions. And that's because the goal is not to help the Iranian people, but satisfy Israel and its lobby.
Others have argued that tough sanctions will hurt Iran's economy, to the point that it will cripple the hardliners and prevent them from pursuing their nuclear program. But again, if that were the true purpose of the legislation, there is no need for it.
First, Iran's nuclear program has significantly slowed down, due both to the internal crisis and the array of technical difficulties with which it is grappling. Documents recently leaked indicate that the Obama administration believes that even if Iran were to produce a nuclear weapon (at least up to now there has been no evidence for it), it lacks a breakout capability for up to another three years (meaning it doesn't have the ability to convert its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to highly enriched uranium at this point). This is ample time to explore diplomatic options and allow Iran's internal developments to mature.
Second, Ahmadinejad's economic policy -- if it can be called that -- has already greatly hurt Iran's economy and the public's economic welfare. Inflation is so rampant that the government is seriously considering devaluing the currency. Starting on March 21, the Iranian New Year, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to remove price controls and eliminate all subsidies on basic commodities (i.e., food). Iran's most prominent economists have warned that such actions will increase the rate of inflation to at least 60 percent -- currently about 30 percent -- further impoverishing millions of Iranians and driving many businesses to ruin.
Third, Iran has a labor movement that is increasingly stronger and more vocal. The movement is demanding better pay, more labor-friendly laws, an end to corruption, as well as cutting the hands of the IRGC from the economy. The labor movement is an additional source of power to the Green Movement.
Therefore, without illegally meddling in Iran's internal affairs, the country's own internal developments and dynamics can accomplish what even the best-intentioned legislation by foreign powers will never achieve. Iranians are already pushing for a democratic political system, the rule of law, and a free press that would reveal the extent of corruption and mismanagement by the hardliners and the IRGC, which are the root causes of the terrible state of the Iranian economy.
In my opinion, the Iranian people do not need and have not called for foreign interference in their internal affairs -- the supposed intention of the gasoline legislation. They can tackle their problems themselves. What they need is moral support and strong and meaningful condemnation of the gross violations of human rights that are daily occurrences in Iran.
If sanctions are to be imposed, they should be designed to strip away the power of the hardliners to block the free flow of information on the internet. If sanctions are to be imposed, they should be designed to isolate the IRGC leaders and their allies in Iran's conservative camp, which means diplomatic sanctions, not economic ones that hurt Iranians just when their century-old struggle for democracy is beginning to yield results.
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