Sanctions with sense

THE U.S. BILL of complaints against Iran grew longer last week when an American general in Baghdad accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of providing armor-piercing weapons to Iraqis and training Iraqi Shiite fighters inside Iran. Although the Bush administration insists that it seeks a peaceful diplomatic resolution to its quarrels with Tehran, the remarks did more than signal growing U.S. frustration with what it views as malicious meddling by Iran in Iraq. They could be construed — particularly by the paranoid regime in Tehran — as a U.S. enumeration of casus belli.

Meanwhile, both houses of Congress are considering legislation to beef up sanctions against Iran for its refusal to stop enriching uranium. The bills follow a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Tehran has made faster progress than expected on a technology that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon. This defiance has also prompted the U.N. Security Council to begin discussing a third round of economic sanctions against Iran. This time, the penalties need to be tougher than the mainly symbolic slaps on the wrist that the Security Council has imposed so far.

There is little doubt that financial sanctions that punish Iran’s elite and its business class are, over time, more likely to crimp President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions than any U.S. military action, which would only rally the Iranian people around their unpopular leader. And both bills pending before Congress aim to hit the Iranian leadership financially while explicitly refusing to authorize the use of U.S. military force. The White House will object on the grounds that Congress should not reduce the president’s leverage by taking military force off the table. But given this president’s record of foreign policy blunders, Congress is right to declare sanctions superior to war and to try to enforce that policy.

However, the House and the Senate bills contain a number of ill-considered provisions that could have the unintended consequence of thwarting a denuclearization deal with Iran.

First, both bills would have the secretary of State designate the Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization. This sounds appealing, but it could be a poison pill to any negotiated settlement. The Revolutionary Guard’s leadership is so politically and financially powerful within the country that any Iranian leader is likely to demand that the U.S. repeal that provision as a precondition for negotiations on the nuclear issue. But as the State Department has learned with North Korea, it isn’t easy, either politically or technically, to remove a country from the terrorist list, even as part of a peace deal. Linking the Iranian terrorism issue to the nuclear dispute would vastly reduce the chances of resolving either.

Second, both bills aim to punish any countries that supply arms or nuclear components to Iran — and specifically name Russia. This is shortsighted in the extreme. No meaningful Security Council resolution and no meaningful enforcement are possible without Russian cooperation. And multilateral Security Council sanctions would be far more effective than American ones.

With campaign season upon them, the Democrats in particular are desperate to look tough on national security, and Tehran is a convenient whipping boy. But Congress must better aim its lash.