Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the United States has vacillated between engagement and confrontation with the Islamic Republic, with sanctions filling the gap. As Iran has moved closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions in recent years, tensions are rising once again. The latest round of U.S. sanctions, signed into law in 2010, has hurt the Iranian government by restricting finance for oil refineries and discouraging foreign companies from conducting business with it. Yet sanctions have not delayed Iran’s nuclear drive, foiled its support for terrorism abroad, or kept it from meddling in its neighbors’ affairs.
In the wake of revelations about an Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Abdel al-Jubeir, some in Congress are making the case for another round of sanctions, ostensibly to ramp up the pressure even more. But such a strategy leaves much to be desired. Over the past year, for example, Iran has enacted economic reforms and reduced the price of subsidies, riding out and adapting to sanctions.
Washington will only neutralize Iran by exploiting the regime's main vulnerability: its false claim to legitimacy. The ayatollahs' hold on power is inherently unstable because they have no popular mandate. Since staging a rigged election in 2009 to keep Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, they have relied on repression and brutality to silence opposition, jailing journalists, torturing detainees, and executing critics (both real and imagined). By highlighting these crimes on the world stage and actively supporting Iran’s dissidents, the United States can place a new, more effective kind of pressure on Tehran and support the movement for democratic change from within. Focusing on human rights violations will allow the United States to expose the hypocrisy of the regime and remind Iran of its domestic troubles as it tries to expand its
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