Why Sanctions Against Iran are Counterproductive
A new round of sanctions against Tehran, signed into law this weekend, have caused the Iranian rial to plummet to historic lows, depreciating 12% against the dollar. The conventional wisdom is that this is a sign that the sanctions are working. But this conclusion is a misconception given what the Obama administration and its European allies want to achieve.
Sanctions are an economic weapon for a political purpose. Hurting the Iranian economy is not enough when the goals of the sanctions are to destabilize the regime or at the very least force it to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. While the sanctions are undoubtedly affecting Iran’s economy, they are unlikely to achieve their political aims and will probably hurt Western economies in the process.
The biggest threat to the Iranian regime is not Western sanctions but its own citizens. The Green Revolution in 2009 posed the biggest challenge to clerical rule in 30 years. The Arab Spring has demonstrated the power of the people in deposing their autocratic leaders themselves.
US interference in Iranian affairs is only counterproductive. Western and Iranian leaders are equally blameworthy for the economic crisis, which has been a distraction from political activism instead of a generator of one. Iranians are running to trade rials into Swiss francs instead of planning revolutions.
The sanctions, which target Iran’s central bank (in some circles, an act of war in itself), effectively forces global actors to choose: Iranian petroleum or business with American financial institutions. Because of the fragility of the global economy, many US allies like Japan, India and South Korea face an impossible choice.
The sanctions will irk the Turks, Iran’s neighbor and trading partner, who have advocated for fuel swaps instead of aggressive sanctions in dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Ankara imports a third of its oil from Iran, which it sees as a hedge against dependency on Russian energy.
This says nothing of the irritation this will cause Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council, and critics of past rounds of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Middle East expert Juan Cole goes so far as to make the compelling point that while the sanctions, if effective, could reduce Iran’s income from oil and hurt the regime, the devaluation of its currency would help make Iran’s exports more affordable and attractive. Cole also points out that the US may grant exceptions to allies who are dependent on Iranian energy and that non-NATO members, primarily Russia and China, will be able to circumvent the sanctions, easing pressure on the regime.
Importantly, this round of sanctions had resulted from—and will perpetuate—a feedback loop of Iranian-Western confrontation that at worst will result in a catastrophic war. Case in point, in response to the new sanctions this week, Iran has test fired cruise missiles, launched naval exercises in the Gulf, and threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane through which a sixth of the world’s oil passes.
It’s also sad that Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the ire of the West for almost two decades, always takes center stage over Iran’s deplorable human rights record, the source of much more death and suffering. Fraudulent elections, violent repression of dissent and torture will continue to cause more injustice than an Iranian nuke ever will. In this sense, the aggression towards Iran is for all the wrong reasons. Like the Iraq War, which unseated a vicious and genocidal dictator, the campaign against Iran is really about Western self-interest, regional hegemony and power politics instead of human rights.
Unfortunately, this round of sanctions and the vitriol from the campaign trail fits into the Iranian leadership’s narrative perfectly. They see themselves as the heirs of the great Persian legacy, entitled to recognition as a great civilization. In this narrative, it has been Western intervention and power, from 17th and 18th century imperialism; to the 1953 CIA and MI-6 coup against democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddeq; to helping Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, which has hurt Iran. To the Iranians, they are under siege from the West. The West is doing little to refute that claim.
Iranians ask: if the Americans, Israelis, North Koreans and Pakistanis can have nuclear weapons, why not us?
Tragically, this Kafkaesque maelstrom of attrition could easily lead to war over Iran’s nuclear program. Many of the neoconservative advocates of the Iraq War, leading Republican presidential candidates, and Israeli leaders are calling for a preventative strike against Tehran.
While the Iranian regime may be brutal, it is not suicidal. The Ayatollahs aren’t crazier than the decision-makers in North Korea or Pakistan. Even Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that an Iranian weapon isn’t an existential threat to Israel.
Iran’s pursuit of a weapon is not based on a desire to annihilate Israel, which would in turn ensure its own destruction. Iran’s nuclear ambitions ostensibly stem from three things: national (and civilizational Persian) pride, preventing invasion and attaining regional hegemony vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Iranian nuclear program under the Shah (and revitalized in the 1980s partly by Green Movement leader Mir Hussein Mousavi) saw it as a counterweight to Iraq.
In effect, going to war with Iran would transform a situation which would cause zero casualties (a nonexistent, imaginary Iranian nuclear strike) into a war which would cause thousands of Israeli and American lives and possibly send the global economy back into the cellar. Furthermore, war would be unlikely to prevent Iran from continuing or restarting its nuclear progress once the dust settled.
The Iranian nuclear program is spread throughout the country and located underground. American and Israeli officials have testified that it would be difficult, even in a full-scale invasion, to dismantle the entire program, especially while Israel would be absorbing thousands of rockets and long-range ballistic missiles fired by Hezbollah and the Iranian military.
Green Movement members have even stressed that a military attack would sideline the domestic opposition to clerical rule and help to solidify support for the regime.
What is clear (and also impossible in an election year) is that, if robust diplomacy fails, the US must be prepared for the eventuality that Iran will achieve nuclear breakout capacity if it wishes. War and sanctions won’t deter the regime. The clerics have seen what happened to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi after he surrendered his program. They have seen how the late Kim Jong Il successful outmaneuvered the West using enriched uranium as leverage. American aggression will only harden the theocracy’s nuclear resolve.
In short, sanctions will hurt the Iranian economy but not its leadership or its nuclear weapons and in the process, the US is further damaging the prospect of rapprochement with Iran, its relationship with key allies and its own economy.
The inflation and economic crisis in Iran is much more pronounced than it has been after other rounds of sanctions. Because of this, Tehran has simultaneously issued military threats and signaled that it was ready to resume talks on its nuclear program with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany that stalled in January. The economic downturn in Iran gives the 5+1 parties some moderate leverage, especially since Iran’s military threats are not credible. Yet the Kim-Qaddafi case studies demonstrate why it’s likely that Iran will stomach the sanctions and keep the centrifuges running.
These 5+1 countries should make a genuine diplomatic effort to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Fuel-swap deals proposed by Brazil and Turkey that were lambasted in the West should be reconsidered.
If diplomacy fails, cost of containing a nuclear Iran, in both blood and gold, are minimal compared to war. The United States’ best chance to bring down the Iranian regime is to step back, and let the Ayatollahs’ (and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’) mismanagement and repressive policies bring themselves down.
Iran has been a loser from the Arab Spring. There is little enthusiasm for the Iranian model in North Africa or the Levant. The massive anti-regime protests by the Green Movement in 2009 had nothing to do with sanctions or US pressure. If the United States and the Western powers are patient, the winds of change might just blow further East. Until then, sanction will prove counterproductive, despite being infinitely preferable to war. The Catch-22 with Iran is that Western efforts towards regime change fall into step with the regime’s narrative and make the Ayatollahs stronger.