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. What you found is an excellent summary of what’s happened. And as the article clearly states, the Iranians wound up rejecting categorically the initial Western offer to ship the stuff out of the country. Since then they’ve simply been playing games in an attempt to prevent further sanctions; this too is spelled out in the article. There’s nothing to indicate that the Iranians are at all tempted to buy into any plan that involves shipping most of their enriched uranium out of the country. “I don’t see why something like that would be hard to arrange if both sides really want it” — quite so, except it’s obvious only one side does.

  2. OK but I don’t see how they can renege on something they never agreed to. Obviously they didn’t trust the Western offer to ship uranium out of Iran. It looks like they made a counterproposal that for some reason wasn’t accepted by Washington.

  3. It’s my impression that they agreed, at least in principle, then backtracked. It appears now that this was purely tactical and that they never planned to allow 80% of their uranium to be sent out of the country. I can’t read their minds, obviously, but I don’t believe it was mistrust that led them to reject the plan. Their “counterproposal” would not be taken seriously by any responsible statesman or woman.

    Let’s face it, Iran wants a nuclear capability, or at least wants to be in a position to go nuclear on short notice. My view is, so what? They don’t threaten us if they have 1 or 2 or even 200 bombs. At the same time, I realize no American president (not to mention Congress) can take that position. So I hope some sort of compromise can be reached. But the Iranians are not meeting Obama even half way. That spells danger — danger of an Israeli strike at some point, or even an American one. The military option to me is the one thing that could cause severe repercussions to America. If it were in my power, I would do everything possible to secure an American-Iranian rapprochement, irregardless of the nuclear issue. But I wield zero power. So I hope the two sides can somehow reach a compromise. For this nto happen the Iranians have to be more forthcoming than they have been so far.

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