Opponents of the Iran deal, which was worked out between Iran and the UN Security Council plus Germany, with EU support, keep reciting the mantra of “a better deal” through “harsher sanctions.” Even last winter, Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker said, “I think imposing additional sanctions is the only way to bring Iran to the negotiating table in good faith.” But these ideas are of course unicorns, suitable for a fairytale hour on Fox News Channel but having no basis in reality.
In the first place, the United States overestimated its ability to sanction Iran and, even at the height of the sanctions, could not stop it from exporting a million barrels a day, to countries such as China, which told the Treasury Department to jump in a lake. Beijing will be even more defiant if there is a congressional demand for yet another round of severe sanctions. Admittedly, Iranian oil exports were down from 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011, and the sanctions hurt, but they weren’t crippling and may have even had some benefits. A weaker Iranian currency caused non-oil exports to jump, providing jobs and income to farmers and owners of workshops and factories.
Another failure was political: the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and its allies from 2012 until today were the harshest applied to any country in modern history, and they still could not convince Iran’s leaders to give up their right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes (a right guaranteed to all countries by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory).
Beyond these failures, even some of the initial successes scored by the architects of the sanctions are fading and cannot be repeated, because they alarmed the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which are developing counter-measures. Since harsher sanctions would depend on good will from the rest of the world, which does not exist, there is no prospect of punishing Iran more severely than during the past three years.
Politicians often speak of sanctions in a vague and abstract way, but if we look at the details of how they have worked, it gradually becomes clear that most of them are already being blunted. For instance, the United States has enormous influence over the Asian Development Bank, based in Manila in the Philippines. Iran, Pakistan, and India were eager to construct a natural gas pipeline, bringing fuel for desperately needed electricity from Iran’s rich gas fields to the teeming cities of South Asia. The project foundered when the ADB, which is in the back pocket of Washington, declined to make the infrastructure loans required.
Instead, the ADB is backing a rival project to bring gas from Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan to South Asia. The idea of piping such flammable material through Afghanistan, however, seems daft. The pipeline will almost certainly be regularly blown up by the Taliban, and the weak government in Afghanistan (unlike the much stronger states of Iran and Pakistan) will be unlikely to be able to stop them.