By USA*Engage Director Richard Sawaya
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming”
While some might apply Yeats’ lines to U.S. politics generally, they apply in particular to the case of the United States and Iran.
Two notable exceptions are L. Bruce Laingen and John Limbert; the former who was chief of mission, and the latter who was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Both were detained in Iran for 14 months. After criticizing the bellicose statements regarding Iran made by the current Republican aspirants to the presidency (with the notable exception of Ron Paul), they recently concluded in the Christian Science Monitor:
“Despite setbacks, the US should not give up on the effort to end over three decades of futility with Iran. Otherwise Americans risk stumbling into another armed conflict with unpredictable and disastrous consequences. Americans should keep their heads on their shoulders and apply the classic tools of statecraft: patience, firmness, persistence, open-mindedness, and a readiness to listen.
”Above all Americans must keep their poise, and ignore the droners – even the loudest ones – who would stampede their country into yet another Middle East fiasco.”
As the Senate Banking Committee prepares to mark up another “comprehensive” Iran sanctions bill – in response to the House bills (HR 1905; HR 2105) passed last year, and as Iran hawks in the Senate propose a resolution barring “containment” as a policy option regarding Iran (George Kennan, RIP), it would be useful for our elected officials to re-think the premise for sanctions as a legitimate tool of statecraft.
From the statements of all supporters, the premise for sanctions – unilateral, extraterritorial, multilateral – appears to be that economic hardship, brought to bear generally upon target populations or applied specifically to particular “bad actors,” will suffice to change the strategic behavior of a sovereign government.
But the fact is there is no warrant in recorded history for that assumption.
So why the enduring appeal of economic sanctions?
For some, an alternative to war. For others, a box to be checked on the way to war. For many, a rhetorically popular stand with key constituents.
What gets lost in the fog of politically-driven policy (as opposed to the fog of actual war) is the demonstrable fact that sanctions make “patience, firmness, persistence, open-mindedness, and a readiness to listen” the most difficult thing not impossible. Put another way, the opportunities for frank negotiation among sovereign states are inversely proportional to the escalation of sanctions placed on the targeted state.
In a weird variation of the law of unintended consequences, that may explain Section 601 (c) of the Iran Threat Reduction Act (HR 1905):
(c) RESTRICTION ON CONTACT. — No person employed with the United States Government may contact in an official or unofficial capacity any person that — (1) is an agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the Government of Iran; and (2) presents a threat to the United States or is affiliated with terrorist organizations. (d) WAIVER. —The President may waive the requirements of subsection (c) if the President determines and so reports to the appropriate congressional committees 15 days prior to the exercise of waiver authority that failure to exercise such waiver authority would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.
The thing speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes. One can hope that if not wisdom then common sense will prevail and that the Senate will be mindful of Mr. Laingen’s and Mr. Limbert’s informed admonitions – not to mention George Kennan’s.