Lawmakers cry foul as Biden considers lifting some sanctions

“US policy limits our ability to provide sanctions relief, even when the executive branch wants it,” said Edward Fishman, a former State Department official who helped craft a sanctions strategy for the Obama administration. . “The on switch is much easier to press than the off switch.”

The last example concerns Venezuela.

For weeks, it has been reported that Biden has been considering lifting some U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan autocrat Nicolas Maduro in part to get the country’s oil back on the market amid energy crises sparked by Russia’s war in Ukraine. But as the plan came out, Republicans around the world criticized Biden. They said he shouldn’t be soft on a dictator like Maduro, whose country is also a hot topic in the swing state of Florida, home to many politically active Venezuelan-Americans.

“This administrator continues to put America last and embolden our adversaries,” tweeted GOP Representative Andy Biggs from Arizona.

As criticism intensified, Biden administration officials insisted they had not changed their policy toward Venezuela and would not reduce sanctions unless Maduro did. take action to restore democracy – the main reason the sanctions were imposed in the first place. This involves negotiating with the Venezuelan opposition, officials said.

A senior Treasury official, in an interview on Monday, downplayed many reports about Venezuela and said the Biden team “will only lift these sanctions in response to a change in behavior because they were put in place to trying to just change the behavior of the administration there.

Biden’s critics say the initial change in behavior is not enough to lift the sanctions because, among other things, Maduro cannot be trusted over time.

“The regime has never been willing to concede anything to the opposition. The most likely outcome would be that Mr. Maduro opens talks, the US eases sanctions (after the November election) and the talks come to nothing,” the conservative Wall Street editorial board predicted. Log.

Economically, they argue that Venezuela cannot produce enough oil to drive down energy prices.

Biden administration officials brushed off concerns about political interference with sanctions-lifting efforts. “Friction is part of the process – it’s completely normal,” said Jim O’Brien, the ambassador who heads the State Department’s Office of Sanctions Coordination.

But those frictions could also end up weakening the effectiveness of sanctions, which can be imposed by Congress or the president depending on the legal basis used.

Such measures are often seen as the best way to suppress an adversary – whether an individual or an entire government – ​​especially when the use of military force is not an option. Even if the target has few US-based assets to freeze or does not do business with US companies, the imposition of sanctions may damage its reputation and prevent it from engaging in financial transactions elsewhere in the world. the world.

Many scholars like to point out that the primary purpose of sanctions is to change an opponent’s behavior. This means that if the target changes their habits, the penalties must be lifted – otherwise, the target has no incentive to change their habits.

But some governments, like that of brutal Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, have been under sanctions for many years without moving. Others, like Cuba’s communist government, have withstood such economic hardship for decades.

Given Biden’s frequent use of sanctions, debates over when to lift them are likely to grow. Biden has sanctioned everyone from Chinese biotech institutes to members of the Nicaraguan regime. He also inherited numerous sanctions imposed by Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Trump hit Maduro with a number of sanctions and refused to recognize his government. But Maduro stayed in power and undermined the opposition, while sanctions helped push many impoverished Venezuelans to migrate to the United States. (Biden has already eased some sanctions on Caracas on humanitarian grounds.)

The US government regularly lifts sanctions, but it tends to do so without much publicity and often in cases that are not politically charged. Over the past year, there have been more than 400 disbarments of individuals or entities that had previously been sanctioned, according to the Treasury Department.

The East African country Burundi, for example, escaped numerous sanctions last year, but it doesn’t inspire much passion on Capitol Hill either.

With respect to certain countries, however, US lawmakers find it helpful during the election campaign to portray sanctions relief as a show of weakness, even if the sanctions have served their purpose.

Iran is a prime example.

For years, the United States has imposed heavy nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, which many credit with forcing Tehran to finally agree to a deal limiting its nuclear program. Then-President Obama lifted those nuclear sanctions as part of the 2015 deal. But that meant engaging in a fierce political fight with Republicans and some fellow Democrats, who tried but failed. to use the legislation to block the agreement.

Then, despite verifications by international inspectors that Iran was sticking to the deal, Trump scrapped the deal in 2018, reinstating nuclear-related sanctions and adding new ones.

In now stalled talks between Iran and the Biden administration to restore the deal, Tehran has demanded guarantees that a future US leader will not leave, but Biden is unable to make such a promise. Nor can he promise that a future Congress won’t find a way to wreck a reinstated deal.

For foreign leaders who see such dynamics in American politics, the message is that whatever they do, they are unlikely to get sanctions relief.

“Pulling back all sanctions against Iran makes it less likely that North Korea will agree to anything” related to its rogue nuclear program, said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department sanctions official. “It makes it less likely that Venezuela will agree to anything.”

Adding to the challenge of administering the sanctions programs, some adversaries engage in several types of behavior that are objectionable to the United States, O’Toole noted. This means that even if they stop engaging in one type of behavior, they will likely face punishment for other reasons.

In the case of Iran, even though the United States temporarily lifted nuclear sanctions, it maintained many other sanctions related to Iran’s human rights abuses, sponsorship of terrorism and more. Many American and foreign companies, then, were either banned or reluctant to enter the Iranian market despite the nuclear deal. This frustrated Tehran, which felt it was not getting as much economic relief as deal negotiators had promised.

Russia presents an interesting test of what sanctions are actually meant to do.

The United States and its allies imposed historic and exceptionally heavy sanctions on Moscow as it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Sanctions targets ranged from oligarch friends of Vladimir Putin to the country’s Central Bank. The sanctions have dealt a heavy blow to the Russian economy, although its ability to continue to sell energy stocks has somewhat dampened their effect.

Biden administration officials have suggested that if Putin pulls out of Ukraine, sanctions would be eased. But that obviously did not lead Putin to withdraw from the battlefield. The Ukrainian army did much more to drive Russian troops out of certain areas.

Several U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tom Malinowski (DN.J.), have said a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine shouldn’t be enough to lift the sanctions. The measures must stay in place until, at the very least, Putin is out of power, these lawmakers say, adding that they don’t believe Putin won’t re-invade later. If Putin had any incentive to reverse course in Ukraine for sanctions relief, such talk from Capitol Hill is likely to undermine it.

“Any consideration of removing sanctions would be done in consultation and conversation with our allies, of course, but also with our stakeholders in Congress,” said the senior Treasury official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. due to the sensitivity of the subject. “But a precondition for that must be that Russia ends its invasion of Ukraine.”

In Russia’s case, the most useful outcome of sanctions may not be a change in behavior, some analysts have said. Rather, it may be to isolate Moscow financially, limit its ability to resupply and sustain its military, and undermine its war aims.

North Korea is another example of a country where, on some fronts, sanctions have had more of an isolating effect than a change in behavior.

While many members of Congress may view opposition to the removal of sanctions against Venezuela, Iran, or Russia as good policy — especially in places like South Florida — such a phenomenon can also be useful to the executive, said Fishman, who is now a principal investigator. at Columbia University.

On the one hand, in discussions with an adversary, a president can point to a Congress that wants even tougher sanctions as a bad cop to help pressure the adversary to back down.

O’Brien, the State Department official, argued that interest from lawmakers can also help an administration refine its approach and be clear about its intentions. “You need scrutiny and discipline,” he said.

The long-term fate of US sanctions against Russia may depend in part on what Ukrainians want.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership has won him many admirers in Washington. If at some point Zelenskyy asks the United States to lift some Kremlin sanctions to help secure a peace deal, many U.S. lawmakers might acquiesce, Fishman said.


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