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New Sanctions Against Iran Smelling Very Oily

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed S. 2101, the Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Human Rights Act. The legislation expands previously existing economic sanctions against the government of Iran by altering the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996.

Reading about the legislation, my attention was drawn to the date of the original passage of the sanctions being modified. 1996 was 16 years ago. Of course, sanctions against Iran are much older than that. The first sanctions by the United States against Iran went into effect in 1979 – 33 years ago.

One and a half generations of sanctions have not brought Iran to its knees. They haven’t resulted in the replacement of the Islamic government with a secular democracy. They haven’t persuaded the government of Iran to stop supporting terrorist groups. They haven’t prevented the government of Iran from developing a nuclear energy program that could be used to support a nuclear weapons program, as nuclear energy has here in the United States.

What have these sanctions achieved? They have resulted a restricted flow of oil from Iran. The legislation passed yesterday would restrict Iran’s contribution to the international oil markets even further, by expanding sanctions to prohibit trade in oil from projects outside of Iran. S. 2101, if signed into law, will ban the sale of oil from any drilling or refining project in which the government of Iran is an investment or partner, no matter where that drilling or refining takes place. Petrochemical products derived from oil, when they come from such projects outside of Iran, would also be prohibited.

islamic republic of petroleumWill this expansion of sanctions convince the government of Iran to change course? There’s little reason to believe so. After all, it was just two years ago that Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. Iran didn’t blink an eye with that expansion of sanctions. Why would Iran’s reaction be different now?

The text of S. 2101 acknowledges that “Successive Presidents of the United States have determined that the pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities by the Government of Iran presents a danger…” and that “Successive Congresses have recognized the threat that the Government of Iran and its policies present…”. In other words, Iran has been dangerous for years and years and years. The danger of Iran has become a comfortable sort crisis, an ongoing threat that never really comes to a head, but keeps on providing justifications for economic restrictions.

If the sanctions aren’t reducing the dangerous activities of the government of Iran, then why do politicians in Washington D.C. keep tightening sanctions against Iran? Maybe the purpose of the sanctions isn’t really to change Iran, so much as to take advantage of Iran’s extremism in order to take actions that are appealing for other reasons.

In general, the sanctions against Iran mostly focus on oil and products derived from oil. The new sanctions legislation passed yesterday increase the restrictions on oil, even oil that comes from outside Iran. These sanctions reduce the amount of oil on the market, and that reduced supply, through predictable economic mechanisms, increases the price of oil. So, the sanctions allow oil companies outside of Iran are able to make a higher profit without having to work any harder for it. The tighter the sanctions against Iran get, the more money the oil companies make.

So, it’s not strictly true to say that the sanctions against Iran are not working. They’re working very well for the executives and wealthy investors whose fortunes are connected to the price of a barrel of oil.

Passage of the Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Human Rights Act may not do a thing to improve human rights, to enhance regional peace, or to thwart the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But then, such changes may be beside the point.

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