By Daniel Luban
Wednesday’s Washington Post contains a rundown of the Obama administration’s current thinking on Iran sanctions. The bottom line: administration officials are increasingly open to sanctions, but want to find ways to target the Revolutionary Guard and other hardline elements within the regime without inflicting needless suffering on the civilian population. For that reason, the administration shows “little apparent interest in legislation racing through Congress that would punish companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran,” whose brunt would be borne by the most vulnerable segments of the populace. (“Look, we need to be honest about this,” neoconservative foreign policy guru Fred Kagan admitted this spring. “Iranians are going to die if we impose additional sanctions.”)
Even these more finely targeted sanctions appear to be more than the Iranian opposition desires. Spencer Ackerman, in his useful discussion of the Green Movement’s position on sanctions, notes that some elements of the opposition have come to view sanctions that specifically target the Revolutionary Guards in a more favorable light, but it appears that most continue to oppose sanctions in any form. (And of course, it appears that virtually no one in the Green Movement supports refined petroleum sanctions, which opposition leaders have repeatedly denounced.)
But targeted sanctions are evidently not gratuitously destructive enough to satisfy the “bomb Iran” crowd. Thus we see Commentary‘s Jennifer Rubin complaining that such sanctions reflect the administration’s misguided desire to “avoid being too harsh, too effective, or inflict too much damage”. Instead of genuinely “crippling sanctions,” the weak-kneed administration “[doesn’t] want to topple the regime nor inflict much damage, just target those ‘elements’ they think are the really bad guys.”
Rubin is rather vague about fleshing out what kind of “damage” she is hoping for. This is hardly surprising, since the unpleasant truth underlying all the chest-beating talk about “crippling” sanctions is that their primary effect would be to inflict suffering upon precisely the civilians on whose behalf she claims to speak. The logic endorsed by sanctions proponents dictates that once the civilian population is sufficiently ravaged and impoverished, they will rise up in earnest and overthrow the regime. A far more likely outcome, however, is that crude sanctions like the refined petroleum bills will merely inflict gratuitous suffering on the population without harming the regime itself — as we saw in Iraq, where “crippling” sanctions killed hundreds of thousands of civilians (at the very least) without weakening Saddam Hussein’s hold on power.
Of course, the fact that she is calling for innocent civilians to be starved and immiserated does not prevent Rubin from engaging in pompous and self-congratulatory rhetoric about her great devotion to “the Iranian people, who are risking life and limb against a regime they know all to [sic] well is evil.” It would be hard to think of a better example of the profound dishonesty underlying what Glenn Greenwald has aptly called “the ‘bomb Iran’ contingent’s newfound concern for The Iranian People”.
[Cross-posted at The Faster Times.]