Friday, the Obama administration announced the implementation of new sanctions on Iran; these sanctions will target foreign banks that continue to purchase oil from Iran. Washington is attempting to cut off Iran from its oil revenue, further tightening the increasingly suffocating net of economic pressure. The administration hopes that cutting off Iran’s oil exports will force the nation to abandon its nuclear program out of economic necessity. This new set of sanctions are, proverbially speaking, unlikely to be the "straw that breaks the camel’s back"; they are but another set of restrictions in a long line of similar sanctions that will ultimately have little effect on Iranian resolve.
In fact, by continuing to unilaterally push for increasingly tough sanctions, Washington is slowly maneuvering itself into a corner, where its only option will become war with Iran. Sanctions are a failed approach to foreign policy, and their support in the U.S. is largely based on fear, misinformation, and ideological pride. It was not always this way; in fact many can still remember a time when negotiations with our country’s enemies brought the world back from the brink of nuclear war. If the U.S. and Israel do not change their approach soon, it is likely the Middle East will soon be subjected to another destructive conflict.
Nothing illustrates the “no negotiations” approach to foreign relations with Iran better than the proposed “Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011,” which proposes sanctions on individuals and groups having almost any type of interactions with Iranian government officials, effectively banning negotiation. America’s relationship with Iran and its refusal to negotiate goes all the way back to the Carter administration – and seems to have been becoming ever more stringent since. It retains massive public support, achieved through lobbying, fear mongering and war hawking, tied neatly together with a healthy dose of “Tough on Terrorism!” style politics. It is an approach that appeals to our sense of national pride and our religious politics in a relatively simple way; it feels good to say that we are stalwart in our strong stance against evil and terrorism, and don’t negotiate with the bad guys. In reality, this feel-good approach is actually hurting our cause. Economic sanctions do not do most of their damage to the governments of these nations; in fact the civilian population feels most of the pain and the stress. Since U.S. sanctions against Iran have been ongoing since 1980, U.S. policy has effectively created an Iranian generation that blames economic and social woes directly on the United States. So, from the beginning they have limited our capacity to deal with Iran in a bilaterally rational way, because we are seen as untrustworthy. Not only have we set the population against us, making a “regime building” military approach immediately unviable, but we have also denied ourselves the opportunity to do anything other than to further alienate them.
Negotiating with Iran is not a “giving in” approach to foreign policy. In fact, it is the only way we can still have a hope of preventing war. Obama’s further sanctions will do nothing more than to further isolate and alienate Iran, which will likely, and ironically, have the counterproductive effect of further solidifying Iran’s resolve to develop a nuclear weapon in the hopes of having a nuclear deterrent to what they see as U.S. aggression. If we would instead negotiate with Iran on monitoring their facilities, and perhaps even consider the impossible – allowing Iran to maintain a domestic nuclear program for energy purposes. No one could possibly say what the outcome of negotiations with Iran would be; that is not the point.
The point is that we have not even tried. In order to work with Iran and to avoid a catastrophic and costly war that would lively set Middle Eastern democracy back several years and devastate the U.S. economy, we must be willing to negotiate. If negotiations fail, then that is the time for a discussion about more severe actions. Obama’s Friday announcement is sadly indicative of the fact that foreign policy continues to believe in sanctions and aggressive tactics, even when such approaches have done nothing but bring the world closer to another war. As Israel prepares for war and the U.S. stands ready to back them, it seems we have learned nothing from our Cold War lessons about when it is necessary to engage in dialogue with the enemy. In the recent wake of two long wars in the region, I can only hope it will not require another war for us to remember that lesson.