Letter from Washington — From the September 2013 issue

A Very Perfect Instrument

The ferocity and failure of America’s sanctions apparatus

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“A friend told me recently that we are the Special Forces of the Washington think-tank community,” Woolsey said cheerfully when I called. “I liked that.” Founded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the group has in the past secured its funding, currently around $8 million a year, from such traditional wellsprings as Edgar Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Fusing in one entity the parallel tracks of sanctions and drone warfare, the FDD also publishes The Long War Journal, a chronicle of American military conflict in the twenty-first century.

Woolsey quickly referred me to the foundation’s executive director, Mark Dubowitz, who came to his $300,000-a-year job from the world of venture capital. Dubowitz was happy to endorse the Special Forces accolade when I reached him, though he insisted that “being a Canadian, [and] by upbringing modest,” he couldn’t take much credit for crafting the destruction of the Iranian economy. Others in the community are more generous, noting Dubowitz’s handiwork in stipulations buried deep in congressional bills. Section 219 of the Iran Threat Reduction Act, for example, requires any company that files with the SEC to report any connection to trade with Iran — or any connection to another company that trades with Iran. This was the mechanism that unmasked the six Costco club members in Japan and Britain.

“The aim of sanctions,” Dubowitz told me, “is to try and bring the Iranian economy to the brink of economic collapse and, in doing so, create fear on the part of the Supreme Leader and [his Revolutionary Guards] that economic collapse will lead to political collapse and the end of their regime. . . . We’re trying to break the nuclear will of a hardened ideologue.”

Effortlessly reeling off statistics on hard-currency earnings and the technicalities of petroleum refining, Dubowitz lamented the resources still available to the enemy. He outlined a plan to cut off all remaining Iranian oil exports. “Countries would have to stop buying Iranian oil immediately, or their banks would be sanctioned,” he explained. “Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, Indian, South African, Turkish, Taiwanese — everyone who’s buying Iranian oil would be given a short period of time to go buy it somewhere else, or face sanctions against their financial institutions. . . . We could take a million barrels of Iranian oil off the market tomorrow.”

China? India? This seemed ambitious indeed. I asked Dubowitz whether the administration had the will to enact such measures. “Congress has the will to do this,” he answered firmly, and predicted that I would see legislation along these lines within a few weeks.

Sure enough, on May 22, Ed Royce’s Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously for the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, aimed not only at eliminating practically all remaining Iranian oil exports but also at choking off Iran’s access to its dwindling foreign-currency reserves. “We squeeze — and then squeeze some more,” said Royce. Representative Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, suggested a provision mandating punishment for relatives of sanctions violators, including uncles, nephews, great-grandparents, great-grandchildren, and so forth. But this was too much even for his colleagues, who rejected the proposal.

Meanwhile, across Capitol Hill, in the Hart Building, Senator Kirk was germinating another bill, one that would dispense with the fiction that Iranian sanctions are aimed purely at the country’s nuclear program. In theory, Iran’s abandonment of its nuclear ambitions would lead to the end of sanctions. But the ayatollahs don’t believe this. In their view, the United States has never accepted their revolution and is still bent on overthrowing them. According to two former State Department officials, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader himself, made this very argument to the American diplomat Jeffrey Feltman (now U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs) when the latter visited Tehran with a high-level U.N. delegation in 2012. America’s credibility with the Iranians is shot. Or as Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, puts it: “We have sanctioned ourselves out of any influence on Tehran.”

Khamenei will find no surprises in Kirk’s upcoming bill, which will condition sanctions not on the cessation of the nuclear program, but on OFAC’s certifying that

the Government of Iran has released all political prisoners, is transitioning to a free and democratically elected government, and is protecting the rights and freedoms of all citizens of Iran, including women and minorities.

As Parsi notes, the Iranian leadership has responded to previous sanctions by redoubling work on its nuclear program — not exactly the intended effect. Nor is the election of Hassan Rohani as president of Iran, despite his reputation as a “moderate,” likely to lead to any softening of sanctions. “My sense,” Dubowitz assured me shortly after the vote, “is that it’s full steam ahead.”

is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He writes frequently on defense and national affairs, and is the author, most recently, of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.

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