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Op-Ed: Tougher sanctions against Iran could backfire

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Some of my fellow Jewish communal leaders from across the United States will come to Washington Thursday to urge Congress and the Obama administration to slap punitive “crippling sanctions” on Iran and to impose strict deadlines for engagement with Iran.

Our Jewish community’s concern over Iran’s nuclear quest and its support of terrorists is appropriate. We all agree that Iran poses a tough policy challenge to the United States and a major threat to Israel.

But because that challenge is so tough, it should be handled with utmost care. When walking a tightrope, even the slightest misstep can have serious repercussions.

Unfortunately, this week’s robust lobbying campaign on Iran pushes Washington toward potentially dangerous missteps.

Obviously there is a broad consensus among us in favor of denying Iran nuclear weapons, and collective action toward this shared goal is welcome. But the action agenda advocated by the Jewish umbrella organizations that are flying activists to Washington is wrongheaded.

The fly-in’s chief agenda item is new sanctions legislation. The sanctions, widely referred to as “crippling,” are designed to paralyze Iran’s economy. They are part of a strategy of deliberately inflicting suffering on civilians in the hope that if the people are miserable enough, they will pressure their government to change course.

Not only is the strategy dubious morally, but so is its efficacy. Such strategies failed in Iraq, Cuba and Gaza, as well as in Iran itself. What caused the current Iranian regime to lose credibility was its efforts to manipulate and subvert the domestic political process rather than the impact of international sanctions.

Today, in light of the current political instability in Iran, there is an even greater chance that the strategy will result in unintended consequences. Rather than weakening the regime and convincing it to stop its nuclear program, the proposed new sanctions could feed the Iranian government’s narrative that the current popular protest is foreign inspired and supported, giving the Iranian authorities a pretext to discredit and further persecute critics and protesters.

Sanctions can be a powerful tool to pressure Iran. Targeted sanctions against Iran’s government and its leadership could be effective. However, pursuing sanctions that target the Iranian people rather than their leaders is a morally and strategically perilous path that the Obama administration must reject.

Another issue the fly-in’s participants intend to raise is the call for firm deadlines on diplomatic engagement with Iran. Such arbitrary deadlines are a mistake. Deadlines imposed by outside parties, deadlines that are not a result of the Obama administration judiciously and continually assessing the diplomatic efforts’ state of play, are redundant, unhelpful and potentially counterproductive.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the conduct of foreign policy is a prerogative of the president. The president at some point may decide that engagement with Tehran — or waiting for engagement with it — has exhausted its usefulness. If and when he reaches that point, he will have the authority to change course.

Now is the time to send positive signals toward the Iranian people, to take steps that demonstrate concrete support and solidarity with them. Public statements with a focus on human rights in Iran and a clear articulation that the United States does not view deliberate infliction of suffering on the Iranian people as an acceptable political tool, as well as tangible changes to U.S. policy such as gradually de-criminalizing charitable giving by U.S. citizens to legitimate causes in Iran — all these can go a long way toward establishing a responsible, carefully crafted U.S. policy toward Iran that yields positive results.

In order to safeguard Israel’s well-being and America’s interests in the Middle East, we must seek to address the Iranian challenge in the most effective way. Unfortunately, the fly-in’s agenda threatens to hinder President Obama’s effort to diplomatically engage with Iran. It threatens to bring America (and Israel) closer to the brink of another disastrous war in the Persian Gulf. It risks punishing and alienating the Iranian people rather than applying pressure on Iran’s leaders. It is likely to backfire and harden the determination of Iran’s leaders to pursue nuclear weapons rather than entice them to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

(Debra DeLee is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish organization that advocates security for Israel through peace and supports Israel’s Peace Now movement.)

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