Washington, DC – “We have succeeded in imposing the strongest sanctions to date on the Iranian regime,” said Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor, last week at the Brookings Institution. Donilon, addressing the administration’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program in light of the latest IAEA report, stated that sanctions have isolated Iran internationally, helped delay Iran’s nuclear program, and facilitated divisions inside Iran’s political establishment.
But according to some of the experts participating in a panel discussion preceding Donilon’s keynote address, the sanctions have largely punished ordinary Iranians and have united, not divided, political factions in Iran.
According to Kevan Harris, U.S. Institute of Peace Jennings Randolph peace scholar and Ph.D. candidate at The Johns Hopkins University, the sanctions are “not as smart as we think.”
Harris described the effects of sanctions inside of Iran. “Sanctions are having an impact…in what I like to call ‘trickle down’ sanctions.” Sanctions affect the ability of certain banks and large enterprises to obtain foreign exchange and goods, consequently affecting small and medium sized enterprises inside Iran-such as the construction and automobile industry. This process has resulted in the rising cost of business. This trickling down helps to rise “unemployed to a certain extent, and also decreases wages,” affecting everyday Iranians.
Harris challenged the assumption that sanctions facilitate divisions inside Iran’s political elite. “If you threaten countries…all of a sudden they have a real big incentive to start working together,” said Harris. “At high peaks of perceived external threat, the discourse of unity raises and the discourse of factionalism dies down.”
“We spend a lot of resources on sanctions…political and economic…we need to ask ourselves, what’s the cost benefit of that versus spending resources on diplomatic options.”
Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the council of Foreign Relations believes that “Iran’s nuclear program is driven by domestic political factors.” Yet, Takeyh takes the argument against sanctions a step further. He believes that Iran’s nuclear program is actually the Islamic Republic’s only perceived path to “international legitimacy.” By withstanding sanctions and obtaining a nuclear weapon, Iran would “extract tributes from international concession.” “This program…may be beyond diplomatic mediation… underpinned by economic coercion,” said Takeyh.
Harris challenged Takeyh’s assertion, stating “ if the goal of the program is their perceived only path to international legitimacy, then it seems like an alternative policy would be to provide a different path to international legitimacy for Iran that they don’t perceive as open.”
Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, discussed the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program. “Is there anything really new in the annex of the IAEA report?” asked Ferguson, “you have to say, not really. There’s not a whole lot of new stuff in there.” Although there are reasons for concern regarding Iran’s ongoing efforts, Ferguson says that “most of the things that are documented, that we know well, happened prior to 2004.”
Iran continues to build up its stockpile of 19.75 percent enriched uranium, yet Ferguson acknowledges that “even at 20 percent enrichment, it’s still is going to take a few hundred kilos of that amount of material to have enough for one bomb…and Iran so far, according to the IAEA, has something like 80 kilograms enriched to that level.” Even when factoring in Iran’s 4900 kilograms of 3.5 percent low enriched uranium, Ferguson concludes that it is “still not enough material to provide Iran with a true breakout capability.” Ferguson suggested that the best response to Iran’s defiance is not further isolation, but creating openings for dialogue to facilitate increased safeguards and limits on Iran’s nuclear program.