This weekend, Iran’s compliance with the terms of last summer’s nuclear deal was officially verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Shortly thereafter, the P5+1 nations (UN Security Council + Germany) proceeded to lift the majority of their sanctions against Iran, pursuant to the terms of the agreement. Additionally, coinciding with this agreement, the US and Iran successfully negotiated a prisoner swap whereby Iran released 5 US prisoners and got 7 Iranian prisoners released in return.
These were remarkably positive developments for all parties involved. Any reasonable fears remaining about Iran developing a nuclear weapon were mollified, and the Iranian people regained access to the world markets, which will surely be a boon to their economy. More importantly, it showed that diplomacy can produce success, and it was a win for the voices of restraint and moderation in both Iran and the United States. Trade was opened, and the war drums were muffled. Given Obama’s record on virtually every other foreign policy issue of his presidency,* it almost seemed too good to be true. A day later, we learned that it was.
Dovetailing closely with Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton’s own calls for new sanctions against Iran, President Obama announced yesterday that the US would impose new sanctions against certain individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program. This issue relates to the uproar that occurred last fall when Iran tested new ballistic missiles.
As a practical matter, these sanctions aren’t nearly as bad for the Iranian people as the initial ones were. They are targeted in nature, and only 11 entities made the list. Presumably, this will have a negligible impact on the Iranian economy and will happily do very little to offset the gains from the lifted sanctions.
That said, these sanctions are important as a possible sign of things to come. On the heels of diffusing several long-standing diplomatic issues and avoiding a potential crisis last week, the US had a choice to make. We could either fully bring Iran in from the cold and treat it like any other nation, that is neither perfectly virtuous nor perfectly evil. Or we could continue to be hostile towards Iran to score domestic political points and appease our allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia. The new sanctions suggest that we are choosing the path of hostility.
We know this because the premise for these new sanctions is highly dubious. It is debated by some whether the recent ballistic missile tests violated the letter or spirit of UN resolutions against missile development. But this is the wrong debate. It is more important to ask why those UN resolutions against Iran existed in the first place. It turns out the restrictions against ballistic missile development were implemented in connection with the nuclear program. That is, the restrictions were originally put in place to prevent Iran from developing a delivery vehicle for the nuclear weapons they were allegedly developing. So now that the nuclear issue is resolved, implementing new sanctions on the ostensibly related ballistic missile program doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even if it is legal based on the letter of the restrictions, it’s easy to see this as a show of bad faith by the US, especially coming a day after the triumph of lifting other sanctions.
Now, some have pointed out that it is wrong for people who support peace to oppose sanctions on weapons development. While this suggestion is understandable, it is flawed for two reasons.
First, this ban is not uniform. It’s not a treaty restricting development of weapons across all nations or even a detente kind of agreement between rivals to lower tensions, which would certainly warrant support. Rather, it singles out one nation in particular for special, negative treatment. As we’ve said, practically, this is likely of little importance. But symbolically, it means Iran is still deemed a pariah state by some, which increases, rather than decreases tensions.
Second, it’s tough to see how Iran has committed the kind of exceptional atrocities that might warrant entirely unique treatment. It is often pointed out by critics that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and has committed human rights abuses at home. Under any plausible definition of terrorism, this is certainly true. If nothing else, Iran’s support for notoriously brutal Shiite militias in Iraq and their ongoing competition with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for the most executions, would check both boxes. But, they are far from alone in this regard. Saudi Arabia, with its oppression at home, brutal campaign in Yemen, and support for jihadists in Syria, would qualify. Similarly, NATO ally Turkey’s newly ramped up repression of press freedom at home and their collusion with Al Qaeda in Syria would also qualify. If we’re going to sanction Iran on these grounds, consistency would seem to demand we cast a broader net. But obviously, it goes without saying that this is not the path the US will choose. Turkey is still an ally, and Saudi Arabia somehow has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Opposition to sanctions, old or new, does not rest on a belief that Iran’s government is a paragon of virtue. Nor does it require apologizing or exonerating them for their misdeeds. It only requires one to believe that the rule of law is just as important internationally as it is domestically; that Iran deserves the same consideration as other countries; and that sanctions and criticism should be issued based on a country’s actions, not just their alliances. These latest sanctions do not follow that script. And right at the time when peace looked certain to emerge, they moved us one step back toward hostility. The new sanctions aren’t about arms control, and they’re moving us closer to war, not peace.
*I’m excluding Cuba here. We haven’t fully normalized relations with them yet, but we’re much closer than when Obama took office, and he deserves credit for that.