Who’s in favour of sanctioning Iran?

Washington’s attempts to isolate Iran might pave the road to a new conflict in the Middle East.

US-Iranian flag
The US alleged that Iran was involved in the plot, despite considerable holes in the evidence presented [EPA]

Not two months after the US’ highest-ranking military officer repeated calls for diplomacy with Iran, a key congressional committee approved two bills that would impose the severest sanctions that we’ve seen yet. Among their draconian measures is a last minute revision that would make it illegal for US officials to even speak to Iranian officials unless the president issues a special waiver and provides congress with a 15-day notice.

Obstructions to diplomacy and increasingly harsh moves against Iran recall the lead-up to the Iraq war, which was preceded by waves of sanctions and alarmist rhetoric justifying a pre-emptive strike. Not coincidentally, as the war drums in Israel and the US grow louder, “crippling” sanctions against Iran seem like a peaceful alternative. The mainstreaming of this idea has also resulted in less scrutiny of those who have been pushing for sanctions, resulting in a concealed playing field that continues to tilt in favour of the hawks. Now, as the already muted debate about sanctions is shifting to talk of far more militant measures, the balance of power in this tremendously uneven political landscape must be highlighted.

The players

The loudest, most influential organisations pushing for sanctions against Iran have an open pro-Israel agenda, regardless of their positioning on the political spectrum. The best resourced of all is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), self-described as “the most influential foreign policy lobbying organisation on Capitol Hill”. AIPAC lobbied aggressively for the recent bellicose bill proposals, featuring them and its lead sponsors on the front page of its website. Sanctions are “having an impact” and “more are needed”, the accompanying captions read. AIPAC is also a key backer of the push to sanction Iran’s central bank, a move that some Iranian officials consider an act of war.

Supporting Israel’s alarmist stance on Iran is a group of hawkish Washington-based think tanks such as the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD). The FDD features several “experts” who regularly appear in news media and have briefed the US government. Executive director Mark Dubowitz campaigns for “crippling sanctions” on Iran’s energy sector and compares sanctions to warfare. “Gasoline sanctions are not a silver bullet”, he said in 2009. “At best they are silver shrapnel.” Inherent in Dubowitz’s language about Iran are frequent allusions to “killing” and other violent imagery. “The Iranian energy industry is now in a slow-motion death spiral,” he wrote in January – while pitching recommendations to “accelerate its demise”. To “punish” the Iranian government, Dubowitz agitates for a complete embargo on Iranian oil, designating the Central Bank of Iran as a terrorist entity and sanctioning China, India and “companies that continue to do business in Iran’s energy sector”.

Known to publicise the FDD’s articles is United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which strives to market itself as a centrist group, but has well-known neoconservatives on its advisory board, including Bush administration hawks James Woolsey, Henry Sokolski and Mike Gerson. UANI takes sanctions enforcement to a new level by bullying and singling out organisations engaging in business ventures even remotely connected to Iran, while organising alarmist media campaigns about the government. But for all its focus on sanctions, UANI has also publicly endorsed warfare. In a recent article written by president Mark D Wallace and board member Frances Townsend from the Bush administration, the authors say that the US should “make clear” that it will respond to the alleged “Iranian plot” to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington with “effective financial and military action”. This, despite the considerable holes in US allegations about official Iranian involvement and the ongoing doubts being raised about the evidence presented so far.

Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace (WINEP), a think tank created by former AIPAC research director Martin Indyk, is also a staunch advocate of sanctions, having discussed sanctioning Iran’s central bank long before the current debate back in 2007. Levitt was recently featured among a panel of hawkish analysts at a joint subcommittee hearing about the alleged “Iranian plot” where he argued that sanctions have been “tremendously effective” but must be used in tandem with other options including “military options”, “covert actions” and “diplomatic options”.

Levitt’s inclusion of warfare is unsurprising, considering how many prominent neoconservatives have passed from the sanctions phase to lobbying for military strikes. Case in point, at the hearing Levitt attended was Dubowitz’s FDD colleague, Reuel Marc Gerecht, director of the Project for a New American Century, the now defunct think tank that was instrumental in pushing the US into war with Iraq. In front of a congressional audience, Gerecht repeated his recommendation for the US to strike Iran while echoing the pre-emptive war reasoning used by the Bush administration: “I don’t think that you’re really going to really intimidate these people … unless you shoot someone,” said Gerecht. “I think you have to send a pretty powerful message … or I think down the road you’re asking for it.”

Some Iranian-Americans also tout calls for strangling sanctions. Hossein Askari, a professor at George Washington University, wants the US to sanction Iran’s central bank and implement “policies to threaten the stability of the Iranian currency”. According to Askari, the US must also adopt measures “that inflict sufficient direct pain on the Iranian government” while causing “average Iranians sufficient economic distress for them to threaten the regime’s survival”.

Uneven playing field

While Askari considers the suffering imposed upon Iranians by his recommendations “a small price to pay if conditions truly improve”, members of the Green Movement living inside the country oppose them for that reason. In 2009, leader Mir Hossein Mousavi said that sanctions “would not affect the government” but would impose “many hardships upon the people”.

Those who oppose sanctions have nowhere near the same resources to sway congress as hawkish lobbies and pundits do. Still, the National Iranian American Council, which advocates for “strategic engagement”, and prominent media commentators such as Harvard University’s Stephen Walt and the National Interest’s Paul Pillar continue to question the aim and effectiveness of sanctioning logic.

Of particular note is CIA veteran Pillar’s scrutiny of the unclear “objective” of those who advocate sanctions. “Far too much of what is said about sanctions … amounts to saying ‘regime X bad – must pressure it,'” he wrote in August, adding that one explanation for this could be the ulterior motive of paving the way for “military force”. Those who favour this direction “have an interest in being vague about [their objective],” he argues, granting them more “flexibility” in the future for when they tell us why sanctions weren’t enough.

Echoes of Iraq

While Obama raised hopes about the US adopting a new approach to Iran after his 2009 Cairo speech, in reality he has continued a policy of mostly sticks with softer rhetoric. Now, when he is least likely to oppose hawkish measures – lest he give leverage to his hard-line presidential opponents, calls for more militant moves are louder than ever. But continuously implementing harsh sanctions is making diplomacy near impossible, while paving the way towards a war that only pro-Israel hawks want. This recalls memories of the lead-up to the Iraq war, which was fought under the false premise that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction with the intent of using them – the very same argument being parroted about Iran. The push for war with Iraq reached its peak when those opposed to military intervention began enabling the hawks with their silence or support, raising an important question about the present: where are the voices of reason in a political arena that considers legislation outlawing diplomacy permissible and allows proponents of war to take the centre stage?

Jasmin Ramsey is an Iranian-born journalist and co-editor of Lobe Log and PULSE Media.

Follow Jasmin on Twitter @JasminRamsey

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.