Dr. Fariborz Ghadar of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Ms. Malou Innocent of The CATO Institute; Dr. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Djavid Salehi-Isfahani of Virginia Tech and the Brookings Institution debate about the United States and United Nations sanctions policy towards Iran.
Debate: Should the United States Rethink Sanctions Against Iran?
The United States has imposed new sanctions targeting Iranian oil sales to increase pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program. Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes. The U.S. sanctions prohibit almost all trade with Iran.
The United Nations ratified four rounds of sanctions against Iran between 2006 and 2010 in reaction to its refusal to halt uranium enrichment and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). These sanctions include a ban on the supply of heavy weaponry and nuclear-related technology to Iran, a block on Iranian arms exports, and an asset freeze on key individuals and companies.
Dr. Fariborz Ghadar of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Ms. Malou Innocent of The CATO Institute; Dr. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute; and Prof. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani of Virginia Tech and the Brookings Institution debate below about the United States and United Nations sanctions policy .
Dr. Fariborz Ghadar, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Longer term implications of Iran Sanctions
Few nations have ever experienced the depth and breadth of economic sanctions such as those that are imposed on Iran. Whether these sanctions can bring about the changes in Iran’s nuclear ambitions desired by the West and Israel is a matter of much debate, but what is certain is the sanctions have had a substantial negative impact on Iran’s economy. The European Union, whose import represented nearly 20 percent of Iran’s oil export, has instituted a total embargo on Iranian oil. South Korea has stopped all oil imports. Even nations that had close ties to Iran have felt the need to significantly reduce their oil imports from Iran in order to achieve exemptions from the sanctions.
India achieved the exemption by reductions of more than 10 percent; Japan cut its imports by 22 percent; and China has directed more of its oil imports towards Saudi Arabia and has reduced its imports by an amount estimated at 15-20 percent. The net result has been a reduction in Iran’s oil exports varyingly estimated at between 30-40 percent. The IAEA says 40 percent. According to Secretary Clinton this represents a reduction of 10 percent of Iran’s GDP. Add to the oil embargo sanctions on Iranian banks and foreign companies that insure tankers that carry Iranian oil, as well as foreign firms that invest in Iran, and one can appreciate the extent of the economic hardship we are imposing on Iran and Iranians. The removal of Iranian institutions from SWIFT, the international bank messaging service, further isolates Iranian companies from International trade. The extent of the economic war that has been launched against Iran is unprecedented.
The result has been a dramatic drop of the value of the Rial by about 50 percent and a rapid rise of inflation to over 25 percent annually, with particularly rapid price increases on imported food. Bread prices have increased more than 10 fold.
These measures are intended to make the Iranian government accept restrictions on its nuclear program. To a limited extent the actions seem to have been successful. The Iranian negotiators are once again at the table and a technical level meeting seemed to explore a number of options. However the results have been very limited. The proposal to stop uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level, ship Iran’s current stock out of the country, and shut down its underground nuclear plant near Qom in exchange for the removal of certain commercial aircraft parts from the embargo is unlikely to go very far.
With U.S. elections in November and the unwillingness of the current administration to ease up on sanctions, it is unlikely that even a partial resolution will be achieved before the end of the year. The press constantly reminds us that Israel may consider military action and that joint military maneuvers by Israel and the U.S. are planned. Iran is flexing its muscle by carrying out military maneuvers of its own and demonstrating its newest missiles.
One cost that few mention is the impact of these actions on the Iranian people. Will they blame their own government and put pressure on them for a more moderate posture or will they blame the U.S. for the hardship they are made to endure? This should be of concern to U.S. policy makers. The Iranian people are the most pro-American populace in the Middle East (with the possible exception of Israeli nationals). The Iranian regime is hard at work convincing its people that their hardships are due to sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. with pressure from Israel and not by their own government’s incompetence.
Iranians are reminded of the 24th anniversary of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S. battleship Vincennes. It resulted in the killing of 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children. The U.S. government has refused to even apologize for the incident. The Iranian Foreign ministry issued a statement carried by all the local press that indicated this “inhumane crime is proof of the Iranian Nation’s innocence and evidence that the U.S. is not committed to any international legal and ethical principles.”
The sanctions along with Iranian government propaganda against the U.S. are eroding the soft power of the pro-American attitude of the Iranian public. We are giving away our chance to regain Iran as our ally in the region. Is there not a more reasonable way to bring about a productive negotiation? A negotiation that involves more give-and-take and less one-sided demands? In any case, we will not know until the next U.S. election. Unfortunately the Iranian public must suffer this economic warfare until then.
The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy with Iran
History shows that inflexible sanctions rarely yield the desired result. If current sanctions on Iran fail to leverage its behavior or catalyze its people to revolt, then the West should resist the urge to impose more sanctions and lift the ones in place.
Proposing diplomacy with Iran does not make one an apologist for the ayatollahs. That Iran commits objectionable deeds is not in dispute. What is disputed are the benefits of flexibility. Effective sanctions must be carefully calibrated and responsive to cooperation. The U.S. in particular must be willing to dial back sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions short of renouncing enrichment. This is easier said than done given election-year pressures on Capitol Hill and from the Romney campaign. Indeed, Washington has been reluctant to budge, so whether Iran suffers from sanctions or not has become largely irrelevant.
After years of enduring “sticks”—sanctions, Stuxnet, threats of military strikes, and attacks on its nuclear scientists—and “carrots”—peace overtures, goodwill gestures, and four New Year’s messages from President Obama to the Iranian people—Tehran has sought partial relief from sanctions in exchange for compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has also offered to export its 20 percent uranium and suspend enriching to that level in exchange for the West providing medical isotopes and scrapping sanctions. Those deals collapsed.
Today, the West demands that Iran “stop, shut, and ship”: stop enrichment, shutter Fordow, and ship the 20 percent stockpile—this despite the NPT, to which Iran is a signatory, allowing for peaceful enrichment. Moreover, as the National Iranian American Council’s David Elliot and the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney observe, Congress passed sanctions that are not conditional on Iranian behavior.
Demanding Iran’s complete capitulation for no relief from sanctions is a maximalist position with zero chance of success. Extrapolating from the case of Libya’s dismantlement of its nuclear program, Duke University Professor Bruce W. Jentleson and doctoral candidate Christopher A. Whytock find that one of the most crucial aspects of coercive diplomacy is that there are clear benefits to cooperation and that those benefits are realized when the coerced state cooperates.[i] Similarly, Jonathan B. Schwartz, deputy legal adviser to the Department of State, argued from his personal capacity that reciprocity is critical to any sanctions regime.[ii]
Chaim Braun and Christopher F. Chyba, of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, argue that the manipulation of economic sanctions and the amelioration of regional security threats are key, as there must be incentives to go along with disincentives.[iii] International security experts Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss explain about Iran and North Korea, “Getting them genuinely to forswear nuclear weapons at this stage will require not just the threat of very harmful consequences if they persist but also the prospect of a much brighter future if they reverse course.”[iv]
Evidence suggests that effective sanctions on Iran will prove difficult not because of Iran, but because of the intransigent approach of the sanctioning states. Talks are ongoing. Nevertheless, the diminishing returns of economic warfare and international ostracism could lead us down a dangerous path to conflict.
To take a twist on an old saying, if goods do not cross oceans, bombs will. If restricting trade accomplishes little, then failure will galvanize hawks who seek to reckon with Iran militarily. Although Iran has not yet decided to build, test, and deploy nuclear weapons, what it has done is learn the technical and industrial capabilities needed to develop them. Tehran’s knowledge of the nuclear fuel cycle is a major reason why a military strike would prove fruitless; not only would an attack spur Iran to reconstitute its nuclear program but also show to the world that it had a compelling reason for doing so.
The limits of coercive diplomacy are fast approaching. Abandoning rigid sanctions and rethinking the incentives needed for compliance would be the first step and the last chance for a peaceful resolution.
[i] Bruce W. Jentleson and Christopher A. Whytock. “Who “Won” Libya?: The Force-Diplomacy Debate and its Implications for Theory and Policy,” International Security 30, No. 3 (Winter, 2005): 47-86.
[ii] Jonathan B. Schwartz, “Dealing with a ‘Rogue State’: The Libya Precedent,” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 101, No. 3 (July 2007): 553-580.
The debate about how to counter Iran’s apparent pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability is not new. Two decades ago, European officials took the lead on the Iran portfolio, hoping to prove that diplomacy coupled with trade could bring the Islamic Republic in from the cold. They failed. Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled. During the same period, Iranian authorities invested perhaps 70 percent of the hard currency windfall in military programs and, according to IAEA reports, actively worked on nuclear bomb components.
Iranian officials have acknowledged their diplomacy is geared less toward conflict resolution and more toward delay. In June 2008, against the backdrop of reformers seeking to claim credit for Iran’s nuclear progress, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, former President Mohammad Khatami’s spokesman, suggested the “Dialogue of Civilizations” was a tactic to distract the West from Iran’s nuclear progress. Then, in October 2011, former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani credited his willingness to suspend Iran’s nuclear enrichment with successfully delaying Security Council action at a time when Iran needed to install new centrifuges anyway.
Effective sanctions are necessary if the West seeks to avoid either an Iranian nuclear breakout or preventive military action. Twice before, Iranian authorities have abruptly reversed course on demands and policies they swore were unalterable. In January 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini released American hostages because Iraq’s invasion the previous September had made the cost of isolation too great to bear. Then, in July 1988, after more than six years of stalemate, Khomeini accepted a ceasefire ending that war, abandoning his goal to oust Saddam and “liberate Jerusalem.” He described that decision as “drinking a chalice of poison” but regime survival took precedent.
The question for policymakers then becomes what sanctions or combination of sanctions might raise the cost of Iran’s nuclear pursuits too high for the regime to bear. Narrowly targeting sanctions to specific individuals and companies does not work: Khatam al-Anbia, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s economic wing, can shift operations from one front company to another quicker than international agencies can designate them. The only way to plug such loopholes is to sanction entire industries.
Banking sanctions have proven themselves effective. Russia and China may condemn them, but as the North Korea experience shows, the international financial system gives Moscow and Beijing little choice but to comply. Sanctioning oil exports is wise, although two can play the insurance game. A single Iranian mine dropped into the Strait of Hormuz would send insurance rates surging for all ships traversing that waterway. Blocking Iran’s gasoline imports is trickier: While the impact would be crippling, any challenge to the blockade could accelerate military conflict.
Other sanctions are also important. Banning international air travel to and from Iran would not only isolate the regime, but would also undercut Khatam al-Anbia’s bottom line, as the IRGC controls not only 25 gates at Imam Khomeini International Airport but also the entire Payam International Airport near Karaj. Forcing ordinary Iranians to fly from Turkey or Pakistan would not be too high a price to avoid military conflict. Preemptive contract sanctions-declaring contracts signed after a specific date with Tehran to be null and void-would also undercut the willingness of Chinese, Russian, and Indian firms from profiteering off the sanctions regime.
As important as the sanctions are is how they are applied. Leverage comes not from gradually ratcheting up sanctions, but rather from imposing them all at once as the international community did with Libya after the Lockerbie bombing. Rather than offer Iranians economic and diplomatic inducements—-a strategy that, as with Pyongyang, incentivizes bad behavior-Western powers can lift sanctions in response to changes in Iranian behavior.
Iranians are nationalistic and would rally around the flag in event of military strikes, but they have never accepted regime propaganda blaming their economic woes on the outside world. Indeed, every time gasoline has run short and food prices have increased, Iranians direct their anger at the regime. It is that anger that the outside world should encourage.
There is no magic formula and sanctions alone will not stop Iran’s nuclear program. The West should support Iran’s nascent independent trade union movement, and help Iranians break the government’s attempts to impose internet controls. Any coherent strategy should have diplomatic, economic, informational, and military components. Sanctions, however, are a keystone to a broader strategy.
I have been less than a week in the medium-sized city of Neishabour, Iran, visiting relatives, and I can see no sign of a country hunkering for intensifying sanctions and looming difficult times. Sidewalks are full of shoppers and people seem to go about their business as usual. People are complaining about rising prices but they keep buying. There are extravagant wedding parties every evening as hopeful couples tie the knot before the holy month of Ramazan starts, on Friday July 20. Looking at the pace of normal life, one can understand why Iranian leaders seem in no hurry to throw in the towel in the nuclear standoff with the West, and why Western claims of imminent economic doom are exaggerated.
But all is not well, not by a long shot. The dollar has gone through the roof, food prices have skyrocketed, industrial production is down, and unemployment is rising. The oil embargo has cut into Iran¹s oil revenues and financial sanctions have limited the country¹s access to the global economy. Spot shortages and sharp price increases for key food items are already being felt across Iran. This provincial city was rocked on July 23 when hundreds marched down its main street protesting the shortage of chicken at the official price. There is no doubt that ordinary Iranians will pay a heavy price as sanctions intensify; the big question is how sanctions will influence Iran¹s behavior in the international stage.
When sanctions were “smart” and aimed to make life difficult for Iran’s leaders, ordinary Iranians acted as disinterested bystanders. But now that sanctions aim to make life difficult for them, they will have to take sides. Or so goes the theory: put pressure on the people — “economic warfare,” as one conservative commentator told the New York Times – so they get their government to compromise.
Since this theory is about to be put to an extremely costly test, it is important to consider a few things before we commit to this path.
First, international sanctions only work when the population they are imposed on identifies with the objective of the sanctions. This is the big difference between the sanctions to end apartheid in South Africa and those to force Iran to abandon nuclear enrichment. Most Iranians are not all that invested in nuclear enrichment, one way or the other, but few would see stopping Iran’s enrichment as their cause.
Furthermore, history shows that, when threatened by sanctions, Iranians are unlikely to rise up against their own government. In 1952, a Western-imposed embargo on Iranian oil devastated Iran’s economy, but people tolerated the pain and stood with their government. It took a US-sponsored coup a year and a half later to topple the nationalist government and help Western powers achieve their objectives.
True, Iranians are more polarized today, especially after the rise of the Green movement following the controversial election of 2009. But it is a misreading of Iran’s political scene to believe that sanctions will revise or strengthen the protest movement. The opposite may be true. The Green movement was built on economic growth and an expanding middle class. Thanks to economic growth fueled by rising oil revenues, 40percent of Iranians have joined the middle class and the lower 40 percent aspire to the same. The economy has not been doing well lately, the average Iranian still enjoys a decent standard of living, has access to basic services, health, and education. Significantly, last year’s Human Development Report that ranks countries based on income, health, and education placed Iran above Turkey, which is the best performing country in the region.
Sanctions are slowly transforming Iran from a country with an expanding middle class and a rising private sector into a country with a shrinking middle class and private sector. Financial sanctions have placed private firms at a disadvantage relative to government-owned firms in making global transactions. Where the private sector withdraws, the state is often ready to move in.
More severe sanctions will go beyond hurting the private sector and threaten the living standards of the middle class. As basic services deteriorate, and the shortages and long lines that were common sights during the Iran-Iraq war reappear, the government will once again become not the source but the remedy to their problems.
The sanctions will do much to undermine the belief among Iranians about the benefits of the global economy. Such beliefs are what distinguish India from Pakistan. If there is hope for Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab Spring to become stable societies it is the belief in the benefits to their citizens of remaining connected to the global economy. The short-term gains from nuclear gamesmanship must balance the long-term cost of alienating the Iranian middle class.
Spreading faith in global cooperation used to be the White Man’s Burden, but no longer. Leaders in Brazil, China, India and Turkey have done a lot to persuade their people that working within the global economy is not a threat but an opportunity. Many leaders of the Islamic Republic have pushed a similar view. The year President Ahmadinejad took office, in 2005, the Fourth Development Plan he inherited was subtitled “In Conformity with the Global Economy.” These leaders believed in the Islamic Republic as a development state. They built infrastructure and schools and promoted family planning. Naturally, they do not want to gamble all they have achieved in a high stakes nuclear game. If by chance they are contemplating to revive the Islamic Republic as a development state, the world should help them succeed, not undermine their effort.
About Up for Debate:
In Up For Debate, FAS invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss science policy and security issues. This debate among experts is conducted via email and posted on FAS.org. FAS invites a demographically and ideologically diverse group to comment – a unique FAS feature that allows readers to reach conclusions based on both sides of an argument rather than just one point of view.
Please read the guidelines for the official debate and rebuttal policy for participants of FAS’s ‘Up For Debate.’ All participants are required to follow these rules. Each opinion must stay on topic and feature relevant content, or be a rebuttal. No ad hominem and personal attacks, name calling, libel, or defamation is allowed, and proper citations must be given.