To Sanction, or Not to Sanction — That Is the Question

A hallmark of the Obama administration’s Iran policy has been a dual track approach to its contentious nuclear program: diplomacy, and pressure on the regime.  An improvement, to be sure, over President Obama’s predecessor’s policy — essentially all pressure and no diplomacy — but pressure, the Iranians have stated time and time again, will not achieve its stated goal, namely, that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium on its soil and that Iran negotiate in earnest over what kind of nuclear technology the West will allow it to possess.  Diplomacy that is hobbled by pressure will not succeed either.  Perhaps Western and Israeli leaders have a difficult or impossible time separating Iranian rhetoric from reality, but anyone who knows the Iranians should easily recognize that they’re not exaggerating or lying when they say they refuse to compromise under pressure and threats, and that they don’t appreciate being likened to farm animals, as they believe they are, whenever “carrots and sticks” are promoted as a policy to force them to change their behavior.

As Iran prepares to sit down again — for the first time in over a year — to negotiate its nuclear program with the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, represented by EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton), the chances for a breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear crisis remain as slim as ever, notwithstanding U.S. claims that its unilateral sanctions and the sanctions regime the UN has imposed on Iran are “working.”  Sanctions, designed to punish Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, to force it into negotiating from a weakened position, or to weaken the regime to the breaking point, have not achieved their objective, and if anything, the pressure on Iran makes it even more intransigent on the issue of its nuclear policy.  Yes, the sanctions are “biting,” and yes, they “working” in the sense that the pressure on the economy has resulted in its further weakening, but sanctions and other pressures will do nothing to change the behavior of the regime, a goal President Obama and Hillary Clinton have often cited.

The Iranian government has spent years explaining and defending its nuclear program to its people, to the point where cab drivers in Tehran can recite the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) article that entitles Iran to uranium enrichment, and giving up that right in the face of pressure from foreign powers would be a catastrophic defeat for the Islamic Republic — a nation that has suffered under various sanctions regimes since almost its inception.  A revolutionary leadership — and this includes the opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Green, and otherwise — that declared from the moment of its victory over the Western-allied monarchy that it would pursue an independent path in international relations and that it would protect the nation’s national interests at all costs will not under any circumstances give in to Western demands, not if those demands conflict with the nation’s rights under international law or treaties it has signed.

The latest round of sanctions, and particularly unilateral U.S. and EU sanctions, were, according to the U.S., originally designed to not impact ordinary Iranians, but with evidence to the contrary, President Obama recently declared in an interview (with the Persian service of the BBC) that he expects the Iranian people to blame their own government and not the U.S., for whatever hardship they suffer.  A shockingly naïve statement that displays a complete lack of understanding of nationalism when exhibited by anyone other than flag-waving Americans, it is also akin to asking ordinary Americans to blame their own government for its foreign policy when they suffer from a terrorist attack.  People may blame their government for many things, including its crackdown on civil liberties, but they don’t generally blame their government for the actions of a foreign one.

Sanctions are indeed hurting ordinary Iranians — “Ali the Plumber” if you will — by contributing to inflation, severely and negatively impacting investment and as consequence unemployment, but if one goal of debilitating sanctions is to induce the people to rise up and overthrow their leaders, Western leaders are misreading not just the Iranian leadership, but the opposition and the Iranian people, too.  And those who believe sanctions should not be just linked to the nuclear issue but also to Iran’s human rights record, in the hope of empowering the opposition to the government, also misread the Iranian leadership but more importantly the nature of that opposition, mistakenly ascribing to it a desire for regime change as well as realignment of Iran’s strategic position from independence to ally of the West.

Sanctions, or any kind of external pressure or even threats of military action, will be, in the end, self-defeating.  In dealing with Iran we have moved from pressure alone to diplomacy plus pressure, all the while including military threats to force the Iranian government to do as it’s told.  Turkey and Brazil, two countries that understand Iran and Iranians better than either the U.S. or the Europeans, have insisted that a third way, diplomacy alone, is the only solution to the nuclear crisis and other issues of contention between Iran and the international community.  Perhaps it’s time we listen to them, if we don’t want to listen to the Iranians themselves.

Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran and The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge.  This article was first published by Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, on 19 November 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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