In an effort to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, the House of Representatives recently approved legislation that would place sanctions on foreign companies providing that country with gasoline. If also passed into law by the Senate, these sanctions threaten to complicate diplomatic efforts by encouraging anti-American propaganda and undercutting the very people the United States wishes to support.

Unfortunately, the Iranian government isn’t that vulnerable to gasoline sanctions. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has both increased its refining capacity and enacted a more effective rationing program. These moves have significantly decreased its need to import petroleum products.

Instead, gasoline sanctions would inflict widespread economic hardship on the Iranian people, including those who took to the streets last year to protest what they said was Ahmadinejad’s rigged re-election. If our country forces regular Iranians to pay more for the gasoline they use every day, it won’t, as some suggest, cause a further rift between the people and their government. Rather, gasoline sanctions would inflame anti-Americanism that the regime can then exploit to further its own anti-democratic interests.

If the United States hopes for the emergence of an environment in Iran where pro-democracy forces may successfully challenge—and one day replace—the current regime, new sanctions are a step in the wrong direction. Poorly designed gasoline sanctions strengthen hardliners’ anti-American arguments and undercut moderates’ calls for internal reform and external engagement with our country.

Sanctions have no history of changing Iranian behavior, apart from moving it in a more aggressive direction. While Washington may believe that negotiations are bound to fail and that the United States should start preparing for worst-case scenarios, this “inevitability assumption” has previously turned out to be wrong. Egypt, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were all once thought to be the next inevitable nuclear weapons states, but none of these countries ever built “the Bomb.” Worst-case assumptions may lead decision-makers to miss clear signals when a negotiated settlement with Iran is actually possible.

Sanctions would divert the attention of the Iranian government and its people from the real problems within Iran, including the lack of freedom of speech and other rampant human and civil rights abuses. Stepping up our sanctions against Iran would offer its hardliners the propaganda they need to gain internal political support against the United States and therefore increase the regime’s power—just as support for Ahmadinejad has begun to wane.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful wing of the Iranian military that supports terrorists abroad, should be a primary target for any sanctions. Yet the Guard Corps may actually benefit from the proposed sanctions, since they could give its smuggling activities a boost. Even the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that supports these sanctions, acknowledged that the Guard Corps “is least likely to be affected” by this type of effort.

Rushing to pass unilateral gasoline sanctions may send the signal that the United States is no longer interested in engagement. If sanctions become necessary to increase international pressure on Iran, multilateral sanctions targeted at the Iranian leadership and Guard Corps would be more effective.

If Congress ultimately passes unilateral gasoline sanctions this year, Ahmadinejad would have a convenient excuse for delaying negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and continuing to stifle dissent. Are these counterproductive outcomes worth it just so a few members of Congress can go home and brag to their constituents that they are “doing something” about Iran?

Leadership isn’t about doing something. It’s about doing the right thing.

Laicie Olson is a policy associate at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC.

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