Congress’ Iran Sanctions Dilemma

Benjamin Netanyahu Speaking to the US Congress in 2011, Wikimedia Commons

By Mitchel Hochberg, Columnist

Though the agreed upon framework for negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran bars new sanctions, congressional anti-Iran hawks—who believe restrictions brought Iran to the table—really would like to increase sanctions on Iran.[1] Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the subject, presumably using Netanyahu to fill the leadership gap left by US President Barack Obama.[2] Efforts to further sanction Iran are based on a false premise. Sanctions are insufficient to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear capability and increasing restrictions makes clinching a final deal less likely.

Despite the frequency with which they are employed, economic sanctions alone rarely alter state behavior. If states value a goal, they are willing to make economic sacrifices to retain core regime supporters and shift the burden onto constituencies that oppose the government.[3] Cuba did not bend to the American embargo, North Korea did not give up its nuclear program in response to sanctions, and Serbian leaders came to the negotiating table in response to Bosnian and Croat forces creating facts on the ground, not economic restrictions.

Yet, the Obama administration and its supporters claim the sanctions against Iran are the most effective ever and feel confident they can change Iran’s nuclear calculations. To a point, this is true. The sanctions against Iran have support across the international community including Russia and China. Businesses have been deterred from violating them, even though sanctions were relaxed after the negotiated interim deal. While sanctions have inflicted pain on the Iranian economy, proponents of diplomacy erred in asserting that the strength of sanctions has translated into a diplomatic window.

In fact, there is no demonstrable causal relationship between the existence or level of sanctions against Iran and Iran’s willingness to negotiate or make concessions on its nuclear program. Sanctions helped bring Iran to the table, but not because certain increases in sanctions have had repeatable effects on Iranian behavior.[4] US diplomats signaling flexibility during secret talks before Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election were among the most important factors in changing Iran’s calculus.[5] Positive signs from the US may have convinced Supreme Leader Khamenei to allow moderate Rouhani an electoral victory and an opportunity to accelerate talks.

Under Ahmadinejad, pressure and sanctions generated Iranian nationalism and defiance; Iran’s leaders rallied the public around a nuclear program as a symbol of national pride and of resistance to the imperial West. Internal politics and preferences over the nuclear program are at least as important as sanctions in determining Iran’s willingness to limit its nuclear program. Khamenei will need to repudiate the views of Iranian hardliners and side with Rouhani before signing off on a final deal. More sanctions are unlikely to convince a group deeply suspicious of the United States that cooperation is beneficial.[6]

Further, economic considerations are not the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is developing a nuclear capacity in an effort to secure itself against US containment and influence in the Middle East.[7] Recent invasions, a long term military presence, and anti-regime rhetoric give Iran legitimate reasons to fear that the United States is out to get Iran. Iran’s leaders have also legitimated themselves with anti-American rhetoric since the 1979 revolution. Much more is at stake than economics; a nuclear program is a gambit to ensure the survival of Iran.

A deal between the United States and Iran that demonstrates an acceptance of Iran’s existence could assuage these concerns. Assurance and respect—not economic gains—are Iran’s biggest need in nuclear negotiations. Iran would likely sooner build a “resistance economy” to withstand sanctions than give up its entire nuclear program.[8] Iran’s oil exports have been halved and its gross domestic product has shrunk at around 5% a year since at least 2012.[9] New sanctions would do little to change Iranian leaders’ calculations. Iran is prepared to withstand economic hardship in order to feel less threatened by the United States.[10]

If Congress overrode a presidential veto to pass a bill implementing or threatening further sanctions, it would actively undermine diplomacy by imperiling Iran’s security. Iranian hardliners could claim sanctions demonstrate an American desire to collapse the Iranian regime.[11] A marginally worse economy would not be enough to overcome increased concern over US intentions. Khamenei would find it even harder to face down hardliners in light of new American aggression.[12]

Even if economic concerns chiefly motivated Iran, new restrictions would make subsequent offers of sanctions relief seem less credible. Congress is already threatening to upend a deal; passing more sanctions would make that threat appear more likely.[13] This is not a game of “good cop, bad cop.”[14] Instead, it is “good cop, dumb cop.” Congress acts more responsively to the needs of a hardline Israeli Prime Minister than those of the US President. President Obama can hardly seem in control of Congress, giving the Iranians no reason to trust the “good cop” and cooperate. Instead, Iranian hardliners will become more suspicious while moderates become more concerned about Obama’s ability to rollback sanctions.[15]

Passing sanctions would also weaken international support for the US position in negotiations. Restrictions would be bad faith negotiating and could lead negotiating partners and countries enforcing sanctions to conclude that the United States is not serious about diplomacy. They would be more likely to side with Iran should talks fail and make it much harder for US-led efforts to continue sanctioning or negotiating with Iran to succeed.[16]

Sanctioning Iran has been a rare bipartisan issue during President Obama’s tenure. Politicians who want to collapse the Iranian regime and those who just want to negotiate have found common ground in restricting Iran’s economy. The administration must now face down a group that proclaims these sanctions the most effective to date and sees few drawbacks to adding to them. President Obama’s veto should allow him to hold off Congress for now, but this situation will remain toxic and discolor US diplomacy until—and unless—the 2016 elections produce a new president who supports Obama’s views.


 Mitchel is a first year in the Security Studies Program and a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown concentrating in international security. He is especially interested in security dynamics in the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia. Currently, he is interning in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy-Middle East. He previously interned at the Council on Foreign Relations, United States Embassy London, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

[1] Riechmann, Deb. “US House Leader Defies Obama on Iran Sanctions.” Yahoo! News. 21 Jan. 2015. <;.

[2] Ravid, Barak. “White House Criticizes Netanyahu’s Planned Trip to U.S., Calling It ‘departure from Protocol’ – Diplomacy and Defense.” 21 Jan. 2015. <;.

[3] Pape, Robert A. “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work.” International Security 22.2 (1997): 90.

[4] Trindle, Jamila. “Everyone Loves Iran Sanctions… For Now.” Foreign Policy. 12 Dec. 2013. <;.

[5] Katzman, Kenneth. Achievements of and Outlook for Sanctions on Iran. Congressional Research Service. 22 Apr. 2014, 4.

[6] Kahl, Colin. “The Danger of New Iran Sanctions.” The National Interest. 31 Dec. 2013. <;.

[7] Fisher, Max. “9 Questions about Iran’s Nuclear Program You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask.” Washington Post. 25 Nov. 2013. <;.

[8] Khajehpour, Bijan. “Decoding Iran’s ‘resistance Economy'” Al-Monitor. 24 Feb. 2014. <;.

[9] Katzman. Achievements, 6; Katzman, Kenneth. Iran Sanctions. Congressional Research Service. 23 Oct 2014, 51-3.

[10] Pillar, Paul. “Lower Oil Prices Will Not Turn Producers into Pushovers.” The National Interest. 31 Dec. 2014. <;.

[11] Kahl, Colin. “Why New Iran Sanctions Won’t Work.” POLITICO Magazine. 10 Dec. 2013. <;.

[12] Kahl. “The Danger of New Iran Sanctions.”

[13] Kahl. “The Danger of New Iran Sanctions.”

[14] Cordesman, Anthony. “U.S. Strategy and Added Sanctions on Iran: The Role of the Administration and Congress in a “Good Cop, Bad Cop” Approach.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. 16 Jan. 2014. <;.

[15] Schreck, Carl, and Luke Johnson. “Will GOP Congress Block an Obama Iran Nuclear Deal?” Informed Comment. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 23 Nov. 2014. <;.

[16] Dreazen, Yochi. “Obama Admin: More Iran Sanctions Will Fracture Anti-Nuke Alliance.” Foreign Policy. 15 Nov. 2013. <;; Maloney. “Domestic Politics.”; Kahl, “Why New Iran Sanctions.”

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