June 24, 2010

Congress moves forward with ‘crippling sanctions’ (and misses opportunity to support Iranians)

On Monday, the latest version of Congress’s sanctions bill was unveiled just in time to be passed and sent to the president’s desk by July 4. The new sanctions bill comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the Iranian election that sparked a massive protest movement and brutal government reprisals. But while lawmakers have attempted to reconcile the pain that these new sanctions will impose on ordinary Iranians with Congress’s claims of support for the people of Iran, this bill remains a blunt instrument that perpetuates the sanctions-only framework that has dominated the United States’ Iran policy for decades.

The sanctions bill is officially titled the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (H.R. 2194), but it is better known by its shorthand moniker–“crippling sanctions.” This was the term popularized by Senator Hillary Clinton when she was campaigning for president, but which fell out of vogue in Secretary Clinton’s State Department following the violence and suffering that occurred in Iran over the last year.

Congress, however, never abandoned the concept of “crippling” Iran through sanctions. Now that the Obama administration has passed U.N. sanctions, and protests and government brutality in Iran no longer dominate the news, Congress has free reign to pass sanctions that would “cripple” Iran’s economy by cutting off gasoline to Iran that is used by ordinary Iranians for everything from heating their homes to producing food and transporting medicine.

What is most disappointing is that, in addition to the usual sanctions proposals, there were innovative, intelligent Iran measures that were introduced by members of Congress in the past year which offered a proactive approach to eliminate unintended consequences of existing U.S. sanctions and support the human rights and humanitarian needs of the Iranian people.

H.R. 4303, the Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), introduced by Representative Keith Ellison, would impose travel restrictions on Iranian human rights abusers and end U.S. government contracts for firms that provide Iran’s government with Internet censorship and surveillance tools. Those measures — the punitive elements of the bill — were included in Congress’s new sanctions bill.

But while these provisions are good, the final piece of SWIPA would lift a U.S. ban that prevents American NGOs from working in Iran for humanitarian and human rights purposes. Most Americans do not even realize that current policies make it illegal for U.S. NGOs to work in Iran without special permission, unless they have searched for ways to help Iranians and realized that there are few avenues to provide such support.

SWIPA would also enable Americans to coordinate “people to people” diplomacy with Iranians, such as organizing sporting events with Iranians and Americans or establishing educational exchanges between students in the U.S. and Iran. These efforts could prove to be an important way for the U.S. to ensure Iranians do not suffer under the isolation imposed by their own government, but unfortunately we are prevented by our government from doing so.

While the final sanctions package acknowledges that such NGO work is “in the national interest of the United States” and “fosters humanitarian goodwill among the people of Iran” and should not be unnecessarily hindered, the sanctions bill stops short of actually lifting the restriction and allowing NGOs to carry out this important work.

Instead, the bill ensures that NGOs working on overt “democracy promotion” efforts would not be restricted from working in Iran — a sign that Congress may be more interested in returning to a heavy-handed, U.S.-led regime change approach than creating space to allow Iranians to take their destiny into their own hands.

Another critical proposal that was only partially included in the final sanctions package is H.R. 4301, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA), introduced by Representative Jim Moran. The bill would ensure that software enabling the people of Iran to communicate and access information freely is not prevented from going to Iranians.

When IDEA was introduced last December, it was illegal for American software designers and companies to allow Iranians to download even the most basic software, meaning that the Iranian protesters who utilized Internet communication software to broadcast images and videos for the rest of the world to witness did so in spite of U.S. sanctions.

In March, the administration finally implemented a new rule to allow free Internet communication software to be available in Iran, but failed to lift restrictions on other software that would enable Iranians to bypass government Internet filters. The final sanctions bill endorses the administration’s decision and also includes good language that may open up the possibility that satellite Internet and other technology can be sent directly to Iranians. The bill stops short, however, of lifting restrictions on anti-censorship software.

In sum, there were positive measures included in Congress’s sanctions package, but Congress missed an important opportunity to take serious action to support the Iranian people. Many lawmakers who support the politically popular “crippling” sanctions on Iran also acknowledge the failure of the sanctions-only approach of the last three decades and openly doubt sanctions will change Iran’s behavior. But instead of taking the opportunity to break this cycle, eliminate unintended consequences of existing sanctions, and stand with the people of Iran, Congress is moving forward with a bill that will ultimately impose further pain on Iranians and do more damage than good.

This article appeared originally in Foreign Policy.




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