There is growing bipartisan momentum in Congress to impose
further sanctions on Iran. This long-overdue action, which would
strengthen U.S. diplomatic leverage over Tehran, should be welcomed
by the Obama Administration and integrated into its dual-track
strategy for Iran.
New sanctions or measures to tighten up existing sanctions would
send a strong signal to Iran's Islamist dictatorship that its
support for terrorism, duplicity on its nuclear program, and
widespread human rights abuses will trigger increasingly severe
repercussions. Tehran is likely to end its problematic actions only
if it is convinced that failing to do so would bring consequences
that threaten its own hold on power.
More Pressure Needed
Iran ranks as the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism
and supports hostile groups in Iraq and Afghanistan that target
American soldiers on a daily basis. The radical Islamist regime
poses a threat not only to the United States and its allies but to
the Iranian people, which it continues to brutally repress after
crushing a popular opposition movement that was galvanized by
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's widely disputed "re-election" last
Iran continues to hold as hostages three American hikers and two
American citizens of Iranian descent and is suspected of
involvement in the disappearance of retired FBI investigator Robert
Levinson in Iran in 2007. But for many in Congress, the last straw
was the September 24 revelation by President Obama that Western
intelligence agencies had discovered a uranium enrichment facility
that Iran had tried to hide for several years.
On September 26, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs
Committee, Howard Berman (D-CA), announced that he will fast-track
Iran sanctions legislation in his committee. Berman said that the
committee will soon consider the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions
Act, which he had introduced along with Representative Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the committee.
This promising bill would increase the size of financial
penalties against Iran and bar a handful of foreign companies that
sell gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran from
doing business in the United States. Iran is vulnerable to a cutoff
of gasoline imports, which provide up to 40 percent of its
consumption. The regime's attempts to reduce this vulnerability
through rationing triggered riots in 2007 and remain a sore point
with Iran's citizens today.
Three original sponsors of the Senate version of the Iran
Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joseph
Lieberman (I-CT), and Evan Bayh (D-IN), called on September 25 for
the urgent passage of the bill, which has attracted 76 co-sponsors.
The three issued a joint statement: "Given Iran's consistent
pattern of deceit, concealment, and bad faith, the only way to
force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions is to make absolutely
clear to the regime in Tehran that its current course will carry
catastrophic consequences. We must leave not doubt that we are
prepared to do whatever it takes to stop Iran's nuclear
This week, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd
indicated that he will introduce legislation that will incorporate
the Senate version of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act
along with other sanctions such as tougher export controls and
enhanced authority for freezing the assets of Iranian entities that
support terrorism or proliferation activities.
The Obama Administration is also reportedly scrambling to put
together a package of sanctions after the latest revelations about
Iran's nuclear deceptions. But some within and outside the
Administration are likely to argue that sanctions should be kept on
hold as long as the P5+1 talks continue.
This is the wrong approach, because it gives Tehran every
incentive to prolong the talks and stave off sanctions without
fully complying with repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions
demanding that it freeze its uranium enrichment activities. There
is no time to waste, given that Iran already has the knowledge,
technological infrastructure, and growing stocks of refined uranium
to build a bomb in the coming months.
Iran's Faltering Economy Is Vulnerable
The decline in the global price of oil, which provides about 80
percent of Iran's export revenues, has left Tehran more vulnerable
to foreign economic pressures. The fall of oil prices from their
2008 peak, growing domestic consumption of oil, and problems in
maintaining the volume of Iran's oil exports have led to a sharp
decline in Iran's oil export revenues, which has exacerbated
structural weaknesses in the Iranian economy.
Sanctions levied now are likely to have more political impact
within Iran than in the past, given the growing opposition to the
regime, an unemployment rate of over 20 percent, and an annual
inflation rate of about 13 percent.
Even more important than new U.S. sanctions would be greater
international participation in existing sanctions on Iranian banks,
the Revolutionary Guards, and other entities that support
terrorism, Iran's military buildup, and its nuclear program.
Especially needed are the adoption and implementation of stronger
export controls by our allies -- particularly in Europe -- to
restrict the export of nuclear, military, and dual-use technologies
to Iran. Broadening international participation in tightening
existing sanctions on Iran is also important, because Russia and
China are likely to delay and dilute any new sanctions at the U.N.
No Silver Bullet
Sanctions alone are unlikely to be decisive in changing Iranian
behavior, but they can substantially raise the economic, political,
and diplomatic costs to the regime of continuing its current
hostile policies and drive a deeper wedge between the regime and
the Iranian people. For sanctions to work, there must be widespread
international cooperation in enforcing them over a prolonged period
of time. But Iran may be only months away from attaining a nuclear
The sooner Congress acts on sanctions, the better. However, only
decisive leadership from President Obama, supported by a broad
international coalition willing to enforce much more harsh
sanctions and backed by the credible threat of military force, is
ultimately likely to force Tehran to give up its nuclear
Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.