University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

George A. Lopez

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The nuclear standoff between Iran and the western powers has intensified to the point where the only question being asked in Washington is how “crippling” — to use Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s preferred term — the new sanctions will be. Congress has adopted legislation to embargo gasoline imports to Iran and impose an additional asset freeze on Iranian banks and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Washington certainly has ample reason to impose new penalties on Iran. Tehran continues to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding enriched uranium. In October, Iran walked away from a deal to exchange its low-level enriched uranium for internationally processed highly enriched uranium, which was urgently needed for medical purposes. Moreover, Iran has not moderated its support for terrorist groups, and its violent repression of domestic dissent has intensified.


But while stinging sanctions may be justified and available, the proposed sanctions will not work. The bitter irony — forged by Iran’s successful resistance to 30 years of U.S. sanctions and by the complexity of its domestic situation — is that the proposed measures will fail either to halt Iran’s nuclear program or to improve Ahmendinejad’s human rights behavior. Why? Even well-formulated sanctions force compliance only about one-third of the time. That success rate is worse for trade sanctions like the proposed petroleum restrictions. Sanctions that are excessively punitive and that further isolate a country frequently fail. They often arouse a nationalist backlash and produce a rally-around-the-flag effect. Instead, sanctions work better when they provide a roadmap that allows the target to re-engage with the international community on the issues that have created the crisis.

Sanctions that are excessively punitive and that further isolate a country frequently fail.

Past cases in which sanctions have worked to deter nuclear buildup — in the Ukraine, South Africa, and Libya — illustrate that only an astute mix of narrowly targeted sanctions, combined with new security guarantees and a versatile array of economic incentives, can induce countries to denuclearize. These cases were successful not because negotiators increased the sharpness of the sanctions’ bite, but because they advanced incremental compliance through determined diplomacy and a credible promise of sanctions relief. Security assurances and other inducements were then provided to finalize the deal.

Additional sanctions could deepen the human rights crisis in Iran. In a country with a beleaguered leadership, sanctions allow the regime to blame outsiders for domestic dissent and use sanctions as a rationale for even further repression. Sanctions could also provide an excuse for Iran to suspend international nuclear inspections or withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


What options, then, exist for the United States? First, Washington must recognize that it can’t sanction Iran into nuclear submission. Pressures are necessary to achieve a negotiated solution, but these should follow the approach of the Security Council sanctions: smartly conceived and narrowly targeted sanctions imposed on designated individuals and entities that control missile technology and nuclear development. These and other sanctions have the benefit of impeding Iran’s ability to access necessary technology and materials and increasing the costs of the program. These more calibrated sanctions send a strong message but not a punishing one. They also help the United States to maintain the international consensus that condemns Iran and that is needed to underwrite the security and economic assurances that will seal a final nuclear deal.

The United States must take the bold move — openly or secretly — to meet and talk with the highest levels of the Iranian leadership.

The Obama administration must rearticulate its policy of engagement and give it real teeth through direct and determined diplomacy. The United States must take the bold move — openly or secretly — to meet and talk with the highest levels of the Iranian leadership. This must occur even though we disdain the government’s actions and seek ways to support the Green Movement within Iran. The administration must treat the rejected October uranium-swap agreement as a deal-in-waiting and act on the good bet that the Iranians realize that some version of the exchange will work for them. We must also recognize the history of negotiating with Iran — Tehran is often late with responses and prone to exploring other options before reaching final agreement. Determined diplomacy has a better chance of succeeding than harsh sanctions.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Chair of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute and a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace for 2009-10. This essay is drawn in part from this article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.