In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides relates how Pericles, in the fifth century BC, imposed economic sanctions against the city of Megara, which had allied itself with Sparta. Athens prohibited trade with this city state and sent a message: if Megara did not break its alliance with Sparta, it would be punished. Megara was enraged and urged Sparta to unleash war. The resulting hostilities lasted for 30 years.
The history of economic and political sanctions to compel a country to change its conduct is long, but it teaches us that they frequently result in failure. Not only do they fail to change the conduct of the sanctioned states, but they invariably lead to war.
The Security Council voted last week for a set of sanctions against Tehran. It’s another step toward confrontation in the course of the myopic foreign policy of the United States vis-à-vis Tehran.
For Washington, the sanctions are part of what it takes to “contain” Tehran. According to that logic, they are a link in a chain of sequence from diplomatic pressure to war. That is to say, Obama maintains the same old rigid priorities that have ruled Washington since the triumph of the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago. The objective continues to be regime change, and the threat is preventive war.
For Tehran, this threat is real. Its two neighbors to the east and west are subjected to an invasion by US troops. It also finds itself surrounded by nuclear weapons powers. Among those powers is Israel, a country that has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and that today has 200 nuclear warheads ready for use.
Washington says that its sanctions are strong, but the reality is that they are exceedingly weak measures. To begin with, they do not constrain the production and exportation of hydrocarbons. Hillary would have liked that, but China would not have voted for it and therefore it was not included. Neither are they general sanctions on financial services and insurances. The only real sanctions prohibit other countries from investing in uranium mining and the production of nuclear materials and technology in Iran. Some travel restrictions are imposed, and the financial assets of some corporations and individuals listed in the annexes to the resolution are frozen. The rest is standard stuff: it is impermissible to provide Iran with offensive military equipment (but Russia could continue to supply surface-to-air missiles, for example), etc.
Are these sanctions legal? The answer is no, because the Security Council is obligated to determine that the case of Iran represents a threat to peace, and that requirement has not been fulfilled. The declarations of the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot substitute for the fulfillment of that requirement, and, besides, they are full of mixed messages on the nuclear program of Tehran.
Iran has not violated the NPT. It has insisted on its right, conferred by this treaty, to enrich uranium and to develop its nuclear industry without interference. The countries that today support the sanctions have not been able to prove otherwise. The very intelligence services of the United States have not been able to demonstrate that Tehran has a program to produce nuclear weapons.
Will the sanctions be effective? If the point is to halt Iran’s project to continue to master the entire nuclear fuel cycle, the sanctions will fail. The only course left for the stupid Hillary-Obama policy will be a preventive attack (which could be unleashed by Israel). The consequences will be disastrous.
In 1941, the United States imposed an oil embargo on Japan to stop its expansionism in China. That measure laid a siege that Tokyo considered intolerable and led it to make war against the United States. It is said that Japanese expansionism was uncontainable in any case. Perhaps, but it is also true that Washington knew very well what it was doing and the sanctions were a prelude to a war desired by the United States. That is precisely the logic behind the madness of the latest sanctions against Iran. The sanctions are the means to prepare for confrontation and war.
The latest set of sanctions adopted by the Security Council (with the vote of Mexico, which again played a sad role) gives Obama a meaningless momentary victory in this tortuous path to the confrontation with Iran.
The global economic and financial crisis is deeper and longer than many wish to admit. And it is going to end up redefining the structure of the global economy. History teaches us that this type of crisis and processes of international economic reorganization will eventually end in armed conflicts. Economic empires in their twilight stage (of which the United States is an example) are not disposed to relinquish the center of power without a fight.
Alejandro Nadal is an economist in Mexico. The original article “Sanciones contra Irán y la próxima guerra” was published by La Jornada on 16 June 2010. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).