How to explain America’s failure, after 20 years of efforts, to impose genuinely crippling sanctions on Iran? Start with the penchant of the executive branch—from Presidents Clinton to Obama—for excluding Congress from the process.
Last month, the New York Times reported that President Obama planned to bypass Congress on any final deal with Iran, directly violating a pledge by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year that the administration would “of course” consult with lawmakers about the future of sanctions. “We’d be obligated to,” he said, “under the law.”
At the same time, the administration maintains that it feels perfectly copacetic with its current slate of sanctions anyway—no need to rush for more. Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew said shortly after the implementation of the interim agreement that the United States—thanks to “President Obama’s leadership, congressional actions, [and] American diplomacy”—had “put in place a historic sanctions regime, and Iran now finds itself under the greatest economic and financial pressure any country has ever experienced.”
At first glance, Lew’s narrative seems compelling. After a decades-long campaign, sanctions have clearly exerted a devastating impact on Iran’s economy under the Obama presidency. They have cut off Iran from the global financial system, leading to mass unemployment, lowering precipitously the value of the rial, significantly raising the cost of food, and spurring multiple countries to cut oil imports. Making matters worse, Iranians have rioted in the streets in protest.
Yet more than 20 years after Congress passed its first nuclear-related sanctions, Iran continues to defy the international community. It has refused to accept any limits on its centrifuge production. It has refused to explain the possible military dimensions of its program. And it has refused to make a meaningful offer during negotiations that would end its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Sanctions may have weakened Iran’s economy, but they have not weakened Tehran’s determination to acquire the bomb. They have received multilateral support, but not comprehensive multilateral enforcement. They have upset the regime, but not jolted it into submission.
On one level, Tehran’s intransigence stems from habit: It has a long history of exhibiting greater concern for its Islamist agenda than for its people’s economic woes. As early as 1993, long before America sought to sanction Iran’s economy aggressively, the New York Times reported, “the Iranian revolution has failed to achieve either prosperity or sustained hope.” Iranians face “mounting unemployment, high inflation, housing shortages, and a state-run economy that has driven industry to the ground.”
But on another level, the problem also springs in part from years of U.S. dysfunction in its sanctions policy. Since Congress passed its first nuclear-related sanctions in 1992, the campaign has unfolded protractedly and haphazardly, featuring inconsistent enforcement by the executive branch that enabled Tehran to adapt, sporadic diplomacy that led nowhere, and opposition from much of the international community, including key Iranian trading partners such as Russia and China.
For example, one of the earliest and most important bills, the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 (renamed the Iran Sanctions Act in 2006), authorizes sanctions against any foreign company that invests more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector—the lifeblood of its economy. Yet successive administrations failed to sanction a single foreign company under the legislation until 2010, citing vociferous objections from capitals overseas.