The Middle East Channel

Getting over the sanctions delusion

Recently I was talking with a friend from the military-intelligence world about the mounting pressure on Congress to pass the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act - legislation aimed at "crippling" Iran's civilian economy.  Reportedly a House-Senate conference is already informally underway trying to craft a consensus version of the bill, and last week AIPAC sent a message to every Member of Congress urging that IRPSA be enacted "without delay."

I explained that in my view sanctions aimed at civilians were a bad idea, and that sanctions in general, while a potentially powerful tool, do not, on their own constitute a policy.  My friend's  response? "Sanctions are the sign of a failed policy, period."

He makes a good point.  Fundamentally, sanctions are how the US tells a foreign government:  we don't like you, we can't convince you to see things our way, and we can't (or aren't ready to) overthrow you - so get ready to feel some pain.

But many people today are operating under the delusion that sanctions are about more than inflicting pain.  They seem to believe that the message of sanctions is: you will see things our way or we will sanction you into submission.

Where does this delusion come from?  Maybe back in 1960, when the US first imposed sanctions on Cuba, someone could have believed this. But today?  Sanctions still haven't worked in Cuba (unless you define "working" as impoverishing the population).  They didn't work in Haiti or Iraq. They aren't working today in North Korea, Syria, or Gaza (or even Iran, where far-reaching sanctions have been in place for three decades). 

The record is clear: sanctions may make angry Americans and frustrated policymakers feel less impotent, but they don't force regimes to fold or change their behavior, and they don't motivate populations to overthrow their leaders.  In fact, they usually have the opposite effect.

Here is where supporters of sanctions will raise, triumphantly, the case of South Africa.  But South Africa is the exception that proves the rule.  Because South Africa is the one case where sanctions were about supporting the self-identified interests of a large portion of that country's population.  In every other case, sanctions have been about promoting US interests, not the interests of the people bearing their brunt.  We sanctioned the Castro regime because we refused to tolerate Communism so close to home.  We sanctioned Gaza because we rejected any dealings with Hamas.  We sanctioned Iraq because we decided that Saddam Hussein had become an irredeemable enemy of the US.  We started sanctioning Iran because we decided that the Iranian regime was beyond the pale.  And - no surprise - in every case except South Africa, the populations that were expected to rise up and act as tools of US foreign policy obstinately refused to cooperate.  

And so we return to Iran. 

Historically speaking my friend is right: the US-led Iran sanctions regime - which dates to the bad-old-days of the embassy takeover - signaled the failure of America's Iran policy.  We don't need to re-hash the ugly history that led to this failure.  It is enough to recognize that thirty years ago the US decided:  until something significant changes, we are abandoning policy in favor of sanctions and saber-rattling.

That was then.  This is now. 

And now Iran represents an acute foreign policy challenge to the US and the world. The kind of challenge that demands sober, rational policy reflecting clearly-defined, well-understood, prioritized objectives.   Objectives like getting Iran to abandon any pursuit of nuclear weapons and accept stringent international oversight of its nuclear energy program; to stop supporting terrorist groups; to end activities that undermine US efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan; to cease belligerent anti-Israel rhetoric; and to respect international norms of human rights and civil liberties inside Iran.

Is this a call to end sanctions against Iran?  Not at all.  I still believe that smart, targeted sanctions can be a powerful tool for putting pressure on Iran, as part of a broader strategy that uses engagement and pressure - bilateral and multilateral.  And even if existing sanctions have failed to achieve US foreign policy goals, they unquestionably represent leverage that the US can use as part of a smart, resolute diplomatic strategy today.  Can such a strategy work?  Maybe.  The truth is, nobody knows, because it's never been tried. 

But let's not kid ourselves about what adding new sanctions will achieve.  New Iran sanctions may represent valuable domestic political currency in the US, and new targeted, multilateral sanctions could have some impact on the margins and send an important message to Iran that the international community is united.  But in terms of achieving US foreign policy objectives, new sanctions on their own won't do the job - and unilateral US sanctions targeting civilians will likely backfire. 

And more broadly speaking, persisting in making sanctions the primary focus of the US approach to Iran will be a signal of the continuing failure of US policy, not of a new US seriousness to confront this major foreign policy challenge.

Lara Friedman is Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now.

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The Middle East Channel

The Petraeus briefing: Biden’s embarrassment is not the whole story

On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) "too old, too slow ... and too late."

The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus's instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. "Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling," a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. "America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding." But Petraeus wasn't finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command -- or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus's reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged  in the region's most troublesome conflict.

[UPDATE: A senior military officer denied Sunday that Petraeus sent a paper to the White House.

"CENTCOM did have a team brief the CJCS on concerns revolving around the Palestinian issue, and CENTCOM did propose a UCP change, but to CJCS, not to the WH," the officer said via email. "GEN Petraeus was not certain what might have been conveyed to the WH (if anything) from that brief to CJCS."

(UCP means "unified combatant command," like CENTCOM; CJCS refers to Mullen; and WH is the White House.)]

The Mullen briefing and Petraeus's request hit the White House like a bombshell. While Petraeus's request that CENTCOM be expanded to include the Palestinians was denied ("it was dead on arrival," a Pentagon officer confirms), the Obama administration decided it would redouble its efforts -- pressing Israel once again on the settlements issue, sending Mitchell on a visit to a number of Arab capitals and dispatching Mullen for a carefully arranged meeting with the chief of the Israeli General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi. While the American press speculated that Mullen's trip focused on Iran, the JCS Chairman actually carried a blunt, and tough, message on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that Israel had  to see its conflict with the Palestinians "in a larger, regional, context" -- as having a direct impact on America's status in the region. Certainly, it was thought, Israel would get the message.

Israel didn't. When Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed by an Israeli announcement that the Netanyahu government was building 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, the administration reacted. But no one was more outraged than Biden who, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, engaged in a private, and angry, exchange with the Israeli Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus's Mullen briefing:  "This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace." Yedioth Ahronoth went on to report: "The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism." The message couldn't be plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American  lives.

There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA, the American Medical Association, the lawyers -- and the Israeli lobby. But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military. While commentators and pundits might reflect that Joe Biden's trip to Israel has forever shifted America's relationship with its erstwhile ally in the region, the real break came in January, when David Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America's relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America's soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.

Mark Perry's newest book is Talking To Terrorists

[UPDATE 2--from Mark Perry: A senior military officer told Foreign Policy by email that one minor detail in my report, "The Petraeus Briefing" was incorrect: a request from General Petraeus for the Palestinian occupied territories (but, as I made clear, not Israel itself), be brought within CENTCOM's region of operation was sent to JCS Chairman Mullen - and not directly to the White House. My information was based on conversations with CENTCOM officials, who believed they were giving me correct information. It is significant that the correction was made, not because it is an important detail, but because it is was inconsequential to the overall narrative. In effect, the U.S. military has clearly said there was nothing in this report that could be denied.]