The (Many) Problems with the Iran Sanctions Bill

By Daniel Luban

It now appears that the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), Howard Berman’s sanctions bill targeting Iran’s refined petroleum sector, is likely to come up for a vote in the near future. AIPAC and other hawkish “Israel lobby” groups have made the sanctions bill their top priority for months now, and today brought news that the more moderate J Street is planning to go along with the sanctions bill.

For a comprehensive overview of why this is such bad news, see this post by Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now (APN). She includes a very thorough table summarizing all the flaws with the bill and recommendations for how it could be improved. The upshot, she writes, is that the Berman bill “leads to the very problematic conclusion that the US is seeking to inflict widespread suffering on the Iranian people in order to force them to put pressure on their government.”

Sanctions proponents’ reasoning is based on the rather dubious belief that if the U.S. starves the Iranian civilian population of resources they will blame their own government rather than ours. It is much the same logic that has led Israel to blockade Gaza for the past two and a half years, only to see Hamas become stronger than ever as a result; similarly, sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s killed hundreds of thousands of civilians (by the most conservative estimates) while doing nothing to weaken Saddam Hussein’s hold on power.

Of course, the overwhelming evidence suggests that unilateral sanctions will prove ineffectual in any case. In recent years the Iranian government has moved to decrease its reliance on refined petroleum imports in anticipation of sanctions, and without Russian and Chinese cooperation the measure is likely to have virtually no bite. But since “effective” sanctions would mean in practice “successful in inflicting hardship on the Iranian civilian population,” then “ineffectual” would seem to be the best that we can hope for — better ineffectual than actively pernicious. Of course, best of all would be to do no harm in the first place. While some seem to be calculating that acquiescing on sanctions is necessary to stave off war, it is hard to see what positive result could possibly come from the deeply misguided Berman bill.

[Cross-posted at The Faster Times.]

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Ship searches, harbour blockades….looks like a pretext for military action.

  2. Mebbe so, but given the provocative behavior of the Iranian regime (apparent rejection of Obama overtures, announcement that 10 new reprocessing plants will be built) we can hardly expect that no U.S. action will be taken. The U.S., given the politics both domestically and internationally, has to respond in some way.

    Please understand, I quite agree that unilaterial U.S. action will fail. A sanctions program, to have any chance of success, must be joined wholeheartedly by the EU (especially Germany), Russia and China. Moreover, I personally see no threat to America from a nuclear Iran. I don’t believe Israel is truly threatened either, given its deterrent capability (although as an American I consider Israel’s security nothing for me to worry about anyway). But the fact is that the U.S. government is constrained to try to do something about the Iranian program. Like it or not, that’s the political reality. Rather sanctions that don’t work than a military strike. The Iranians, however, are acting as if the U.S. will never strike them. Even Obama might choose the military option if the Iranians keep rubbing his face in the dirt. That indeed would be a shame, particularly since the Iranian populace is currently at odds with the regime. An attack might unite the two — could this indeed be one reason why Tehran is playing hardball on nukes?

  3. Didn’t the Iranians agree to some kind of uranium swap with guarantees? It shouldn’t be that difficult to organize.

  4. Perhaps they just made a counter proposal. They thought they wouldn’t get their uranium back. I can’t recall the details.

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