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The Iran sanctions mistake

From an editorial Thursday on Bloomberg View:

If something works once, why not do it again?

That’s the putative logic behind a congressional move to impose new sanctions against Iran. By reducing Iran’s oil exports by more than half, existing sanctions have compelled Iran to agree to preliminary limits to its nuclear program. So, the thinking goes, additional penalties will produce greater, long-term limits.

Only two problems: The theory doesn’t quite hold, and it also ignores reality.

As for the theory: Punishment produces results when the recipient has an expectation that compliance will end the punishment. Senate Bill 1881, which with 59 co-sponsors already has almost enough support to withstand a threatened veto by President Barack Obama, would strip Iran of that expectation.

The reality is also awkward. Under the legislation, sanctions aimed at eliminating all Iranian oil exports would take effect unless the U.S. president certified that Iran was meeting various conditions. They go beyond beyond the terms of the interim nuclear deal , beyond even the realm of the possible.

Specifically, the president would have to certify that Iran has not conducted tests for a ballistic missile with a range exceeding 500 kilometers (310 miles). No time span is given, so such tests in the past arguably would qualify. And by requiring Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment capability, the bill also contradicts the terms of the interim deal.

Republican and Democratic supporters are casting the measure as tough on Iran and as increasing the chances of a deal. They are right on the first count and wrong on the second. Iran’s leaders have threatened to abandon negotiations altogether if the bill passes, but even if they don’t, making progress will become difficult if not impossible.

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