June 4, 2011

Why sanctions against Iran won’t work




This article also appeared on Salon.com.  It is the first in a two-part series on why broad-based sanctions don’t affect Iran’s strategic decision-making.

To the
surprise of few, new Iran sanctions legislation was recently introduced
in the House and Senate, shortly before this year’s AIPAC conference
commenced. In what has become a game of domestic political
one-upsmanship, some members of Congress are now supporting Iran-related
legislation that would effectively seek to impose an oil embargo on the
Islamic Republic — irrespective of the economic costs to the U.S. or
the humanitarian costs to the Iranian people — and reduce President
Obama’s waiver authority on sanctions that run counter to U.S. national
interests (read: China).

Ostensibly, sanctions are devised as a multi-level (unilateral and
multilateral) strategy to sharpen Iran’s choices, and build tough-minded
international recognition of Iran’s failure to adhere to its
international obligations. In practice, political constraints at home
and abroad inhibit America’s ability to move beyond tactics centered on
sanctions, and instead toward a strategy that deconstructs the U.S.-Iran
institutionalized enmity through sustained diplomacy. Sanctions are a
tool that American policymakers know — they know how to add them,
change them, intensify them, push them through Congress, and negotiate
them bilaterally and at the U.N. Lesser known is how Iran perceives this
paradigm that seemingly traps U.S. policy. Indeed, the logic of some in
Congress (and the Obama administration) regarding what sanctions can
achieve is largely misguided.

For decision-makers in Tehran, the heart of the matter is how they
perceive that the West will (and will not) react to its foreign policy
posturing in general and the nuclear question in particular. The Iranian
narrative can be summarized as follows: Former President Mohammad
Khatami’s détente failed, so Iran must now deal with the West from a
position of strength. To that end, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the
presidency in 2005, the Islamic Republic analyzed the finite scenarios
surrounding the nuclear impasse, observed the inherent limitations of
sanctions as panacea and perceived a reasonable degree of strategic
flexibility over the short to medium term.

It was no secret to Tehran, or anyone else for that matter, that
the U.S. would spend significant political capital to transfer Iran’s
nuclear file from the IAEA (a technical body) to the U.N. Security
Council (a political body). Iran’s familiarity with the politics of the
Security Council prepared it for a referral and subsequent sanctions
resolution, despite its preference to the contrary. More specifically,
Iranian decision-makers knew that if Russia was on board — which was
likely, given Moscow’s reputation in the Security Council for setting a
price and selling to the highest bidder — China would likely follow

Security Council resolutions, like all sanctions, are not
negligible for Iran. But several key factors make them manageable. The
Islamic Republic knows that its nuclear activities are legally
permissible — despie Western claims that Iran no longer enjoys its
rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because it was found
in noncompliance by the IAEA. Thus, Iran perceives the West as unable to
sell “crippling” sanctions based on its activities thus far, because
there is no “smoking gun.” With that in mind, the Iranian government
views sanctions through two prisms.

Internally, both U.N.-endorsed and U.S.-led “coalition of the
willing” sanctions do limit Iran’s access to Western markets and
technologies, and in turn decelerate economic development. Nevertheless,
Iran continues its shift toward emerging powers China, Turkey, India
and Brazil as trade partners. Overall, both multilateral and unilateral
sanctions exacerbate an already challenging economic forecast for
Tehran, which is compounded by its own mismanagement and corruption. But
loopholes — whether black-market or oil-for-food programs —
inherently allow oil-based economies (and the governments that control
them) to be carried by their massive energy resources.

Externally, Tehran perceives a Western bloc that is in a bind —
none of their options are intuitively good ones, but those nations
cannot afford to allow Iran to keep defying them. One the one hand,
nations of the West cannot implement painful oil and gas sanctions
because prices would skyrocket beyond a tolerable threshold (the idea is
to hurt Iran, not themselves). On the other hand, Iranian
decision-makers perceive Western powers that are legitimately worried
about their reaction to sanctions: If Iran withdraws from the NPT, the
West is faced with confrontation at a level that it does not have the
bandwidth for, particularly at a time of widespread regional unrest.

Overall, the Islamic Republic perceives a credibility gap in the
West that it repeatedly seeks to leverage. After the flawed reporting
and intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMD program, Western powers will be
hard-pressed to use the same arguments to push for confrontational
action on Iran. For that reason, Russia and China are unlikely to
support punitive measures beyond the status quo.

This is the inherent flaw in America’s sanctions-based approach to
Iran: Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has faced a steady
stream of sanctions, isolation and conflict — and Iranian hardliners
perceive this as the environment in which they thrive. To that end, they
have defied sanctions for over 30 years, take a certain pride in doing
so, and are likely to continue doing both. Iran’s ruling elite sees
sanctions as the West resorting to a pressure-based formula that history
has proved ineffective due to the lack of viable policy alternatives.
This reinforces Tehran’s self-perception of increasing strength,
leverage and power vis-à-vis the West.

Historical precedent has shown Iran that Western powers tend to
accept the status of a “regional power” when that power becomes
formidable. China, India and Brazil are often cited as examples. The
Islamic Republic is counting on such an eventual acceptance. The key
virtue from Iran’s perspective has been patience. Decision-makers in
Tehran know that the cost of this strategy is high — sanctions,
isolation and conflict abound — but they are insistent that Iran must
assume the role of an accepted regional power. And if the U.S. maintains
the objective of making Iran yield on the nuclear issue through
pressure, Iranian strategy will continue to be predicated on patience
and knowing that it can eventually achieve its status as an accepted
regional power by playing the long game.

Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the
National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and a former Iran Desk Officer
at the U.S. Department of State. 
The Iran Working Paper Series is supported by
the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ploughshares Fund and the Norwegian Foreign




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