26 July 2012
It is not surprising that Congress can take a more aggressive stance on foreign policy issues than the Executive: Congress rarely bears the loss in foreign policy mistakes (consider where foreign policy issues rank on voters’ lists of priorities) and that consequently gives Congress an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, since high profile issues in most other issue areas carry considerably more risk. The result is that Congress will often take a position that is contrary to that of the Executive, most frequently by adopting a more extreme position, and then either assailing the Executive for a lack of leadership when the Executive does not follow or by taking credit when the Executive adopts Congress’s position.
The most recent example is the issue of Iran’s nuclear program—which is likely the only current issue where there is genuine bipartisan support, famously evidenced in the Senate’s December 2011 100-0 passage of legislation sanctioning Iran’s financial sector. So far, international sanctions, and particularly the European Union’s sanctions of Iran’s oil sector, seem to have succeeded in damaging Iran’s economy and possibly even encouraging them to negotiate, though a breakthrough has been elusive. The problem is that while the sanctions may have succeeded in crippling Iran’s (already weak) economy so far, the goal of the sanctions program is supposed to have been to convince Iran to terminate its nuclear program. On that score, it’s unclear that additional sanctions may help the American cause and it might even undermine it.
First, the fact that sanctions are passed as legislation rather than enacted by Executive Order is critical: an Executive Order may be rescinded if circumstances allow, presumably as a reward for Iranian compliance, but legislation can only be rescinded by the passage of superseding legislation—in other words, a literal act of Congress. In practical terms this means that if there is any daylight at all between the Executive and Congress on the Iranian issue then Congress will continue to hold sanctions over Iran’s financial sector until it is satisfied that Iran is compliant. This raises the bar for compliance to unknown levels, and possibly to a level where it might not even be realistic to expect Iranian compliance. Will Congress consider compliance to be the opening of nuclear sites? An end to all nuclear work? Abandoning missile research? Speculating on how Congress may seek security assurances for Israel vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran’s military writ large raises the bar even higher.
Second, Congress’s Iran legislation offers many sticks but hardly any carrots: Iran knows what will happen if it does not comply but not about what will happen if it does comply. It might make sense to withhold carrots considering Iran’s past intransigence, as well as that of North Korea, but sanctions offer nothing that would make Iran reconsider its fundamental reason for pursuing a nuclear capability, which is its security situation. In fact, as sanctions continue to weaken Iran’s economy it will likely rely on its nuclear program even more since that is one of the few positions of strength on which Iran can stand. There could be plenty of carrots: since Iran was already undertaking massive economic reform there may be opportunities for western assistance, but Congress seems uninterested.
Third, it is impossible to tell exactly what is crippling Iran’s economy between a mix of credible forces: sanctions, the global economic downturn, and the fact that Iran’s economy was already weak. Iran already suffers from high unemployment at a rate of 11.5 percent, and experts believe that the economy will need to expand by five percent per year to absorb the 750,000 annual new entrants into the labor market. The failure to utilize these new workers is resulting in a devastating brain drain, which is estimated to cost the government $38 billion annually; high energy revenues have had little effect on improving the economic situation so far while corruption, particularly in the energy sector, is endemic. The most that sanctions could do would be to make a bad situation worse.
Finally, unless the sanctions can cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and moderate its behavior then they will do more harm than good. This point should be fundamental but unfortunately the efficacy of sanctions has too often been split off from Iranian compliance on the nuclear issue. It is true that a causal link can be made between the Arab Spring and the weak economies and high unemployment in those states, and it is definitely reasonable to expect a similar uprising in Iran if the economy fails to improve. The problem for the west is that the Iran may have already had its “Persian Spring” with the 2009 Green Movement. Not only did the Islamic Republic survive but it also seems to have learned how to deal with mass movements. Even while that doesn’t preclude future uprisings, the leaders of the Green Movement also supported the nuclear program and more importantly abjured the idea of capitulation to western demands. So even in the “best case scenario” that the sanctions could offer—popular uprising against the Islamic Republic—the chance that it would lead to Iran’s abandonment of the nuclear program is almost zero.
Congress seems completely uninterested in any of this. Outside observers of the Iranian nuclear issue would be dismayed to see how Congress refuses to learn about Iran or its economy and politics. It insists on making caricatures of international crises so that every opponent looks like the Soviet Union and every popular uprising looks like Berlin 1989. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about an Iranian nuclear capability, but the current course that Congress insists upon will lead to either war or a status quo that harms the Iranian citizens that Congress claims to support. Either option would have far worse consequences in the long term than even a nuclear weapon.
Paul Nadeau is editor-in-chief of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, the flagship academic journal of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He graduated from the Fletcher School in May 2012 with a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) degree focusing in U.S. foreign policy.
Photo courtesy of House Speaker John Boehner's office.