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Why increased U.S. sanctions on Iran don’t work

No doubt about it: The Iranian government armed with nuclear weapons is objectionable. And the U.S. must stand firmly on key issues like human rights.

{mosads}But, Congress needs to give President Barack Obama’s diplomatic efforts a chance before increasing sanctions. So far, President Obama’s disciplined diplomacy is working. There is finally some progress in dealing with Iran’s nuclear aspirations. President Obama’s diplomacy has yielded an agreement that increases inspections and verification, and reduces Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium. This is a good step.

If Congress insists on further sanctions on Iran, it could derail President Obama’s diplomatic efforts at this delicate time. Iranian Americans, like Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, agree: “The progress we have seen is partly due to Obama’s ability to unite the Security Council. But if Congress moves forward with sanctions that target our allies, the unity will collapse. Where Obama has been a uniter, Congress will become a divider.”

Increasing sanctions enables the Iranian president the opportunity to change the subject — from his failed policies to the nationalistic pride symbolized by nuclear energy. Right now the Iranian people are focused on accountability for abuses committed after an election that was deeply flawed. What the world witnessed this summer was the birth of a civil rights movement in Iran. We need to listen to, help and not hinder the Iranian people at this critical moment.

Iranian leaders like Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji tell us that sanctions will only hurt the people of Iran. Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has denounced sanctions, saying that anyone who supports his “Green” movement should also oppose additional sanctions. According to Mousavi, “Sanctions would not actually act against the government — rather, they would only inflict statesmen. We are opposed to any types of sanctions against our nation. This is what living the Green Path means.”

Researchers agree that increased sanctions on Iran will not serve U.S. interests. A recent report by the RAND Corporation documented a growing corollary between the power of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the military associated with much of Iran’s corruption — and sanctions. With inflation in Iran at over 20 percent and with manufacturing in serious decline, sanctions will only lead to higher prices and greater black-market trade, which is already controlled by the Revolutionary Guard.

Michael Axworthy, a lecturer in Middle Eastern and Iranian history at the University of Exeter in England, thinks that increased U.S. sanctions on Iran are exactly what the Revolutionary Guard wants. He said, “(The Revolutionary Guard) profit by a situation in which there are sanctions and shortages and in which the people can’t get what they want, and they are able to control a fairly small stream of what the people want at an inflated price. I don’t think the Revolutionary Guard is very likely to put pressure on the Iranian regime to open politically in order to open economically.”

Iran has been able to ward off some consequences of sanctions by boosting trade with Russia, China and India. The more we take trade opportunities away from American businesses the more Russian and Chinese businesses step into the vacuum.

Increased sanctions have not worked in Iran. When they do “work,” they likely do so at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable — as they did in Iraq. Researcher Richard Garfield estimated “a minimum of 100,000 and a more likely estimate of 227,000 excess deaths among young Iraqi children from August 1991 through March 1998” from all causes including sanctions.

Iran’s political leaders use polarizing rhetoric to demonize the United States and allies. But they are also shrewd. Increased sanctions at this time, while actually harming their own people, rally and strengthen the nation’s resolve to further its nuclear ambitions in the name of self defense. If we fall prey to their trap, we run the risk of losing both a nuclear-free, and a democratic, Iran.

The change we seek in Iran can only be brought about through a disciplined dialogue and determined diplomacy, as President Obama’s talks are showing.

Ellison serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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