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Getting Iran Sanctions Wrong

Much of the media analysis of Iran at the moment dwells on the punitive economic sanctions targeting Iran's economy. An additional round of more restrictive sanctions took effect at the beginning of this month, drawing renewed attention from the press.

The clear message from that media coverage is this: If Iran were to come clean about its nuclear program, they could get relief from the sanctions that are starting to wreak serious havoc on the country's economy.

That is one of the primary assumptions in the coverage of the Iran crisis. But is it correct?

Mostly not.

Here's the New York Times (6/30/12):

U.S. Bets New Oil Sanctions Will Change Iran's Tune

By ANNIE LOWREY and DAVID E. SANGER

WASHINGTON — After three and a half years of attempting to halt Iran's nuclear program with diplomacy, sanctions and sabotage, the Obama administration and its allies are imposing sweeping new sanctions that are meant to cut the country off from the global oil market. Many experts regard it as the best hope for forcing Iran to change its course.

On Sunday, the European Union is putting in place a complete embargo of oil imports from Iran, which was the Continent’s sixth-biggest supplier of crude in 2011.

The piece goes on:

Still, President Obama and his European allies–with little help from the Chinese, who actually increased their purchases of Iranian crude in May–are placing a bet that another big turn of the economic screws may change Iran's attitude.

"It is our assessment that the Iranians have not experienced deep enough sanctions, long enough to fully understand what their isolation means," a senior administration official closely involved in strategy said Friday in an interview.

The Washington Post had a piece, headlined (6/30/12)  "Amid Standoff, More Sanctions for Iran," that included this:

"In short, sanctions are having a major adverse impact on Iran's economy, and things will only go from bad to worse unless Iran gets serious about addressing the international community's concerns about its nuclear program," said a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity in discussing U.S. strategy on Iran.

But U.S. officials and Iran experts are divided on whether any amount of economic pain will yield concessions from Iran at the negotiating table. Iranian officials, during three rounds of talks with world powers this spring, rebuffed proposals to curtail production of enriched uranium in exchange for gradual relief from sanctions.

Amidst the creepy taunts from (predictably anonymous) U.S. officials, the message is clear: Iran must budge first, and then maybe they'll get what they want.

But is that possible? Not necessarily. Take the sanctions levied by the United States, for instance.  As Scott Peterson noted in the Christian Science Monitor (5/10/12):

In the U.S., the power to adjust American sanctions resides not with President Barack Obama but with Congress, which has voiced a hawkish stance on Iran in a U.S. election year.

Yousaf Butt of the Federation of American Scientists argued (Christian Science Monitor, 5/25/12) that most of the U.S. sanctions could be removed only if Congress chose to do so, and only after the president certified that

the government of Iran has ceased supporting acts of  international terrorism and no longer satisfies certain requirements for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; and [that] Iran has ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of nuclear, biological, chemical and ballistic weapons.

The likelihood of both of those things happening anytime soon is obviously incredibly slim. So from Iran's perspective, the U.S. sanctions are in place no matter what.

That would lend credence to the argument that the sanctions policy has basically nothing to do with a nuclear program. As Butt argued in his op-ed, "A careful reading of the legislative text of the sanctions shows that the sanctions have very little to do with Iran's nuclear program and everything to do with regime change."

And some sanctions proponents are at least honest about this fact. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column (6/16/12) endorsing sanctions primarily as a means to change the Iranian government by causing hardship for the Iranian population. "I regret this suffering," Kristof wrote, "and let's be clear that sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians more than senior officials."

Nonetheless, he added:

Yet, with apologies to the many wonderful Iranians who showered me with hospitality, I favor sanctions because I don't see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power. My takeaway is that sanctions are working pretty well.

This success makes talk of a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites unwise as well as irresponsible. Aside from the human toll, war would create a nationalist backlash that would cement this regime in place for years to come–just when economic sanctions are increasingly posing a challenge to its survival. No one can predict the timing, but Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have shown that unpopular regimes that cannot last, don't.

"People putting bread on the table, bearing the pressure, they have a limit," said a businessman I chatted with on a beach of the Caspian Sea. "Sooner or later, the limit will come and things will change."

Insha'Allah. (God willing.)

Kristof is careful to talk about the Iranian nuclear program, but it's pretty clear that he sees the sanctions as the best hope for creating a different government in Iran. It would appear to be a more honest assessment of the sanctions than one is likely to get in straight news articles.

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