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Moving Beyond Sanctions on Iran

César Chelala

If past experience with authoritarian regimes is any guide, new sanctions on Iran will not succeed in curbing its nuclear power development and will, instead, strengthen the hardliners in government. Much more can be gained by improving the relationship between U.S. and Iranian citizens.

Ahmadinejad's despotic behavior is not in itself enough to initiate a war against Iran that may have tragic consequences for the region and for the whole world. Despite Ahmadinejad's rantings against Israel, Iranian leaders know that an attack against that country would be suicidal, unleashing terrible reprisals from Israel and the United States.

There is widespread suspicion that Iran's possession of a nuclear bomb may initiate an arms race in the Middle East. However, what is now an open secret -- Israel's possession of nuclear weapons -- has not ignited such a race. Since threats of punitive action against Iran are not weakening its nuclear ambitions, it is time to try a different approach.

Iranians insist that portraying them as a warmongering nation does not respond to historical precedent. They point out that the U.S. was responsible for overthrowing a constitutionally elected government in their country, and that it supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of their country while Israel provided arms to Iran. In addition, Iranians claim that the U.S. and other Western countries supplied Saddam Hussein with chemical and biological weapons that caused hundreds of thousands of Iranian civilian deaths.

President Obama has repeatedly stated the danger represented by nuclear weapons falling into terrorists' hands, thus suggesting the need to curb Iran's development of a nuclear weapon. However, Pakistan is a far more serious danger in that regard, since it has a very unstable government and Al-Qaeda is already present in that country.


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It is a common experience that many times countries behave like people. If a person is threatened and coerced by an infinitely more powerful adversary, the only way for that person to react is to become more fearful and find extreme ways of defending itself against that menace.

Three decades of sanctions against Iran have proved to be ineffective. Why are they going to be effective now, when the Iranian regime is more determined than ever to pursue its own road to nuclear development? Sanctions will also not stop the Iranian regime abuse of its own people. As Dursun Peksen, a political science professor and an expert on economic sanctions has written, "My research into the effect sanctions have on human rights conditions in authoritarian regimes shows that more abuses typically occur with sanctions in place and that the number of abuses is greater when sanctions on those regimes are more extensive."

According to Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, foreign governments which want to support the democratic movement in Iran should adopt a policy of active neutrality. As he recently stated, "Sanctions will be counterproductive because the threat of international crisis is the Iranian regime's only remaining resource for legitimizing its despotic power."

Also, for sanctions to succeed they have to be part of a broad international effort. In that regard, the possibilities for Russia and China's support are very slim, since to do so would harm their own considerable economic interests in that country. Iraq's president has already spoken against sanctions to its Iranian neighbors and Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva has stated that isolating Iran is counterproductive.

History has shown that demonizing people only fosters hate between countries. We fear what we know but we fear even more what we don't know. Parallel to efforts on the diplomatic front, dialogue between both countries should be actively fostered through an exchange of artists, scientists, writers and religious figures. It would be a logical next step in brokering peace in that troubled region.

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Dr. César Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, writes extensively on human rights and foreign affairs.

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