Politico reports that House Democratic leaders are planning to move forward with new sanctions legislation that “seeks to cut supplies of refined petroleum products, especially gasoline, into Iran as a means of convincing that regime to end its nuclear weapons programs”:
“I intend to pass the bill by the end of this year,” Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told POLITICO. His bill has 339 co-sponsors in the House, and it might be taken up under a parliamentary process that allows quick approval of widely supported legislation.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) told fellow Democrats on Thursday morning that the bill would be brought to the floor within two weeks, according to Democratic aides. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee passed similar legislation at the end of October, although it is unclear if and when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring that bill up for a vote. [...]
Berman and other backers of the measure hope that the economic pain caused by disruption of those imports would force Tehran to scale back its nuclear ambitions.
I don’t know of any analyst — right or left — who thinks that this legislation will be at all effective in changing Iran’s behavior. Back in August, Gal Luft wrote that “Iran is much less vulnerable to gasoline sanctions than is commonly believed on Capitol Hill, and its foreign gasoline dependence is dropping by the day.” Under President Ahmadinejad, Iran has both increased its refining capacity and enacted a more effective petrol rationing program, both of which have, according to Luft, “slashed Iran’s need to import petroleum products.”
Luft also noted that “Iran is becoming increasingly reliant on China for its refinery expansion program — and Beijing has shown little interest in abiding by any sanctions regime initiated by the United States.”
The American Enterprise Institute’s Iran Tracker website also looked at the potential impact of petroleum sanctions, concluding that “the imposition of sanctions might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term.” AEI’s report also notes that “the group that should be the target of strengthened sanctions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is least likely to be affected”:
Some analysts have argued that the IRGC actually benefits from a more economically isolated Iran because it no longer has to compete with foreign companies for government contracts. For example, one of the main engineering companies under IRGC control, Khatam al-Anbiya, has secured at least $7 billion in government oil, gas, and transportation contracts. Although IRGC companies do not always have the necessary technical expertise for some projects, they still generate revenue by acting as an intermediary between the government and international companies. IRGC members may continue to receive government contracts and subsidy money even if the government adjusted domestic economic policies.
Perhaps just as significantly, leaders and spokespersons of Iran’s Green Movement have rejected these sanctions, arguing that they would hurt the Iranian people while doing little to affect the regime. In September, Mir Hossein Mousavi said sanctions “will impose agonies on a nation who suffers enough from miserable statesmen.”
In a recent interview with the Washington Times’ Barbara Slavin, Iranian dissident Mohsen Makhmalbaf “specifically rejected gasoline sanctions, “saying [they] would hurt average people.” While Makhmalbaf also said that “it was better to focus on the Revolutionary Guards,” as the above reports indicate, sanctions on refined petroleum products — especially of the unilateral sort proposed in the Berman bill — are a particularly ineffective instrument for doing this. Far from forcing Iran to scale back its nuclear program, the threat of these sanctions seems only to have motivated the Iranian regime to move more quickly to harden itself against their effects.
Originally published on 12/3/09 at the Wonk Room
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