House Approves Toughest Sanctions Yet On Iran

In one of the toughest moves yet on an age-old issue in modern diplomacy, the U.S. House of Representatives approved tightened sanctions on Iran on Wednesday under the 2013 Nuclear Iran Prevention Act in aims to further pressure the regime to halt its nuclear program. The bill was met with overwhelming support in a 400-20 vote in the House on Wednesday, and is expected to easily pass through the Senate for full approval when it is presented this September.

Such broad-based, bipartisan support for a tough economic solution to Iran's nuclear threat is not, however, met by a high degree of optimism from the foreign policy community. And, while cracking down on Iran's economy may be a popular move accross political lines at the moment in Washington, this growing convergence in Congress on the issue could not come at a more delicate time.

With the impending inauguration of Iran's more-moderate President-elect Hassan Rouhani, a flailing Iranian economy marked by massive youth unemployment, and growing debate and criticism on the ethical and practical merits of sanctions programs for U.S. foreign policy goals, the decision is far from a cut-and-dry solution to pacify Iran's threats.

While the move undoubtedly sends a bold and decisive signal to the incoming Iranian president that the U.S. does not tolerate Iran's nuclear ambitions, the fear remains that such harsh economic diplomacy can do more harm than good during a transitional time in Iranian politics. Historically, the impact of sanctions programs against rogue states been difficult to discern, with "no perfect lessons" visible from past episodes in history to point to. Sanctions have long been levied against the state since its Islamic Revolution in 1979 in a somewhat dizzying timeline. And, despite the Iranian rial falling to below 80% of its original value in the past two years under international economic pressure, the nuclear issue remains in stalemate.

In the Iranian context, skepticism over the power of sanctions to promote negotiation can be just as compelling as the argument for them, making the potential implications of the increased sanctions expected to follow this month difficult to discern. 

A recent study from Harvard University's Dubai Initiative, for example, found that Iranian youths are suffering the most from sanctions, and the economic and social implications of an alienated youth could threaten the potential for a more stable, peaceful Iran in the future

Opponents often make the point that sanctions on Iran almost always harm the most vulnerable in society, particularly women, youths, and lower-income families. These are social actors whose economic well being can be crucial to sustaining to a more open, stronger, and thriving civil society to counter political extremism and encourage shifts in the nation's foreign policy positions.

Iran's incoming President Rouhani made sweeping promises to help ease the international tensions that have been harming Iranians' economic well being for years, and has been pinned as a more "moderate" negotiator whose election was met with some optimism by those hoping for more productive nuclear talks in the near future. The impending presidential turnover thus presents some hope that years-old negotiating stalemate may face new hope in 2013, potential that some suggest could be harmed by heightened sanctions.

Upon his election, a close adviser to the Iranian president-elect told the New York Times that the new leader's election marks a "new window of opportunity" for the West, suggesting the U.S. and its allies "seize the moment" to engage in renewed nuclear talks.

The fear remains, then, that a harsh crackdown on Iran's economy could not come at a worse time. Iran's new President must tow a difficult line to convince his economically-struggling citizens and domestic hardliners (including the steadfast religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei who holds the last word on the nuclear issue) that negotiating with the United States would be a good option to secure Iran's future.

Former National Security Advisor Gary Sick, for example, fears impending heightened sanctions being approved in Congress on Iran today threaten the opposite, and will present a "strong case" to Iranians that they "can't trust us."

The National Iranian American Council has echoed these claims, insisting that the House vote risks throwing away a major chance to engage, rather than provoke, a transitioning Iran.

Of course, these arguments against toughened sanctions are only one side to the story. Sanctions remain, at this juncture, one of the only tools available for the U.S. government to pressure the state to slow its aggressive nuclear ambitions. The hope is that renewed efforts to cripple the Iranian economy may be just what the new president needs to feel the pressure to turn the ship around nuclear aspirations in favor of economic relief.  As some have argued that the Obama administration has struggled to maintain a strict "red-line" diplomacy on the nuclear issue, impending sanctions offer a chance for the U.S. to back-up its tough rhetoric on Iran and signal it remains unafraid to throw its economic weight behind the issue.  

Ed Royce (Calif.-R), for example, supports the move for "ratcheted up" economic pressure, scoffing at claims sanctions undermine a window of opportunity for soft-diplomacy. "Iran may have a new president," Royce said, "but its march toward a nuclear program continues."

The tough sanctions expected to pass in Congress in the coming months offer a potentially double-edged sword whose swing may be impossible to fully predict. But overwhelming support in the House this week should not suggest the U.S. is aggressively and thus definitively closing in on the nuclear issue in Iran. Revved-up sanctions programs should continue to be met with some degree of skepticism, and their impact should be closely monitored for unintended consequences, as these decisions continue to impact the daily lives of Iranians who have, so far, suffered the deepest blows from the sanctions programs so easily being passed through the halls of Washington today.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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