A Reply to Mark Dubowitz’s call for “Economic Warfare” against Iran

By Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi and Muhammad Sahimi

In numerous op-eds and in testimonies before congressional audiences Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), has called for “crippling sanctions” against the Islamic Republic and its controversial nuclear program. Only days prior to the official commencement of the European Union embargo on Iranian oil, Mr. Dubowitz penned one such op-ed in Foreign Policy titled “Battle Rial” wherein he called upon the United States to step up “economic warfare” against the Islamic Republic and by extension its over 75 million inhabitants. Due to the many dubious assertions and conclusions presented in this article we feel a rebuttal is in order. But let us first examine the FDD and the type of democracy and freedom that it claims to defend and promote.

History repeating?

The FDD’s leadership council includes three people who played a role in advocating policies that resulted directly or indirectly in much of the destruction and carnage that has swept across the Middle East in the last decade. Namely former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, neoconservative pundit William Kristol and Senator Joseph Lieberman, a longtime proponent of some of the most aggressive policies against Iran in Congress. Woolsey and Kristol persistently spread falsehoods regarding Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction in the run up to the American-led invasion. Ironically, the results of invading Iraq—aside from destroyed infrastructure and civilian deaths which by some estimates number in the hundreds of thousands—include the rise of a Shi’ite dominated regime now closely allied with the one in Tehran that the FDD is intent on destroying. The FDD’s advisory board also lists prominent neoconservative Richard Perle whose resume includes the advising of a firm that worked to “burnish Libya’s image and grow its economy” during Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal rule.

While the FDD is heavily focused on Iran, it is Mr. Dubowitz who has spearheaded its sanctions campaign against the country. In his article he contradicts statements by senior Obama administration officials including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director David Petraeus when he asserts that the Iranians are pursuing nuclear weapons. By implying that the clock is rapidly ticking until Iran obtains the bomb, he is also recycling what has become an infamous metaphor associated with the US’s legacy in the Middle East. His unsubstantiated claims even conflict with assessments from IDF chief Benny Gantz and the former heads of both Mossad and Shin Bet who argue that an attack on Iran would be counterproductive. Indeed, despite questions regarding the possibility of past weapons research, the international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no evidence of the diversion of fissile material from Iranian nuclear sites for non-peaceful purposes. Apparently Mr. Dubowitz knows something others do not.

To lay the foundation for his arguments Mr. Dubowitz states that recent rounds of negotiations in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow did not result in tangible progress. But he does not bother to address a fundamental question: how can the United States and its allies expect Iran to seriously engage while they wage what is by Mr. Dubowtiz’s own admission “economic warfare?” This is not to absolve the Islamic Republic of its own contributions to the impasse, but balanced diplomacy must include give and take; it cannot be all stick and no carrot.

What have the US and its allies offered to Iran that can induce it to compromise? Besides fabricated fuel in exchange for the shipment of Iran’s approximately 150kg stockpile of 19.75% uranium, along with spare aviation parts and support in beefing up safety at the Bushehr power plant, not much else was offered. If President Obama’s dual-track policy is to prove effective, it needs to be recalibrated during the course of negotiations so that Iran has a reason to stay invested in the process.

Though perhaps better than the US-Russia deal offered to Iran in October 2009, the precipitous increase in economic sanctions—particularly those against Iran’s Central Bank and its energy sector—have made acceptance of a comparable deal or even a relatively more advantageous one incompatible with Iran’s domestic decision-making calculus. Too much pain has already been inflicted upon a long-suffering economy. The P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) also continue to resist recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. While by no means unconditional, uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes is a basic right guaranteed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Rather than addressing the differences that impede the diplomatic process Mr. Dubowitz rings sensationalist alarm bells and pushes draconian economic measures which, while impacting Tehran’s cost-benefit analysis, can also devastate the lives of ordinary Iranians and result in a military conflict. Recall the effect of other extreme sanctions that were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s including the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, the depredation of the Iraqi economy and the dilapidation of all sources of resistance to the Baathist regime. Needless to say, those sanctions were only interrupted by the 2003 US-led invasion.

Questionable recommendations

Mr. Dubwoitz argues that “[f]or sanctions to work, Khamenei must be forced to make a fundamental decision between his nukes and his regime.” Apart from repeating the baseless assertion that Iran has nuclear weapons, Mr. Dubowitz’s main point is that the sanctions imposed thus far have not been sufficiently harsh. He accordingly calls upon the Obama administration to support legislation introduced by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) that would blacklist the entire Iranian energy sector as a “zone of primary proliferation concern”. This legislation attempts to link Iran’s entire energy sector to its non-existent nuclear weapon program, an unprecedented move that seeks to deliver a knockout blow by further eroding revenues obtained through oil sales. Iran’s oil revenues account for 80% of its export earnings and allow it to purchase basic foodstuffs such as wheat and grain to feed the population, as well as prevent millions of households from being plunged into deprivation and hunger through government subsidies. In recent weeks the price of bread, the basic foodstuff of poorer Iranians, has increased by as much as a third, in large part as a result of the sanctions that Mr. Dubowitz so enthusiastically promotes.

The effort to blacklist any industry that facilitates the preponderance of the Iranian nuclear program, even if indirectly, can only be described as a concerted perversion of international law. Mr. Dubowtiz’s rationale can also be used to justify the embargo of foodstuffs or medicine that sustain Iran’s nuclear scientists and personnel so that they become incapable of furthering the technical development of Iran’s nuclear program. One might even make the case that this logic lies behind the assassination of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists, the culprits for whom are widely believed to be the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) working in coordination with Israel. The MEK is a mortal enemy of the regime in Tehran, and currently on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The attacks it has coordinated against the regime and the Iranian lives it has endangered have not only resulted in their unpopularity among the vast majority of Iran’s population, they have also given the regime the perfect excuse to crack down on legitimate dissenters.

While sanctions at least initially directly targeted Iran’s nuclear program and later the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp (IRGC) and related organizations, they have turned out to be an all-encompassing iron fist hell-bent on destroying Iran’s most vital source of revenue which is not only important for Iran, but also the world economy. In this way Mr. Dubowitz’s key arguments also demonstrate the many dangers associated with so-called “smart sanctions”.

But Mr. Dubowitz even advocates targeting Iran’s automotive industry, which provides jobs to thousands of Iranians:

Economic warfare should not be limited to the energy sector. The United States and its allies should also target other areas of the Iranian economy, including the automotive sector, which is the largest part of Iran’s economy outside the energy industry.

The mind boggles at what connection he might contrive between Iran’s automotive sector and its nuclear program. What rationale can he offer other than pummeling Iran’s economy and thereby inflicting collective punishment on its people?

Goals and benefits

If Mr. Dubowitz’s aim is not a diplomatic solution but rather to drive an already angry and restive population to the point of despair so that it rises up and overthrows the ruling theocracy, he should state so. But is that achievable? The aftermath of Iran’s hotly contested and by many accounts fraudulent 2009 presidential election saw unprecedented protests and the rise of the Green Movement which was not a foreign induced uprising but one that had been in the making for some 20 years. It has not succeeded because the opposition is inadequately organized, does not have a comprehensive program or plan for realizing its goals and its leadership and advisers have been rounded up, jailed and silenced. The disorganized and divided opposition, both inside and outside the country, is now in an even weaker state than before. But the Green Movement has still rejected foreign intervention and sanctions as a form of collective punishment, and their enfeebled position certainly isn’t helped by the constant threat of foreign invasion. If Iran’s economy declines further and major budgetary shortfalls arise and inflationary pressures persist, bread riots of the kind witnessed during the Rafsanjani era can indeed result. But aside from the ethics associated with inducing a population to revolt by bringing them to the brink of starvation, such riots, without a political program or set of objectives, that uprising will also be quickly repressed and controlled by the security forces. What then can be gained from this approach other than inflicting pain upon an innocent population?

While there is little doubt that hardliners around Ayatollah Ali Ali Khamenei’s office along with authoritarian elements of the radical clergy have and will continue to repress opposition to their grip on power, the constant threat of war and a state of emergency can only benefit the security forces and legitimize their raison d’être in the face of an external enemy. Meanwhile oil revenues which mainly flow into the country from China, Japan and India will remain firmly in the hands of the authorities and the repressive organs of the state. Youth unemployment, which accounts for 70% of the unemployment in Iran, will increase and the state of the underprivileged and retirees reliant on state handouts will decline further under the brunt of such policies. One should also point to the clear failure of comparable sanctions regimes in the case of Cuba and also Iraq, which ultimately resulted in a military invasion to impose regime change at great human cost. While states under such sanctions regimes might be weakened in relative terms to other states in the international system, vis-à-vis their respective populations and civil societies they actually become more powerful.

What exactly is Mr. Dubowitz’s desired endgame for US policy on Iran and the “democracy” that the FDD supposedly supports for the Iranian people? The answer is in a piece published by the Los Angeles Times where Mr. Dubowitz is paraphrased as saying, “[the sanctions] could take until the end of 2013 to bring Iran’s economy to wholesale collapse.” In other words, spurring chaos in a geopolitically important middle eastern country by destroying its economic infrastructure is fair game.

Under such conditions Iran’s dwindling middle class, already under great pressure, finds itself between a rock and a hard place: a theocracy that denies its basic political and civil liberties at home and economic desolation exacerbated by unparalleled and crippling sanctions. Though the Iranian government’s own incompetence and endemic corruption in managing the economy has had a major hand in accelerating chronic inflation, it is undeniable that a decline in oil revenues will further harm what’s arguably the most pro-American population in the Middle East.

Will Mr. Dubowitz’s recommendations result in more US-friendly concessions from the Iranian government? Khamenei has heavily invested in the development of Iran’s nuclear program. Many other regime officialdom including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have also praised Iran’s technical achievements over the years and emphasized the importance of the program to Iran’s role as a regional player. Due to the regime’s shortcomings elsewhere and growing legitimacy deficit, the program’s “technological prowess” and importance to Iran’s future energy needs have also been overstated and oversold to the general public, many of whom are no doubt skeptical of the expediency of current state nuclear policy. That being said, because of the extent of political capital invested in the programme it is highly unlikely that Khamenei will make major concessions without a deal that offers a face-saving formula.

But instead of reconsidering the paradigm of engagement with Iran, Mr. Dubowitz pushes for even more “crippling sanctions” and ultimately a military attack by writing that Obama “needs to unite the country in moving beyond sanctions and preparing for U.S. military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Through the course of a single article we witness a slide from the call for intensifying already crippling sanctions to preparation for military conflict which, in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military force, would be a clear violation of international law. But flying in the face of any call to arms is the fact that the nuclear knowledge already acquired by the Iranians cannot be destroyed simply because some installations are razed to the ground. A military attack could also compel the Iranians to withdraw from the NPT, kick out IAEA inspectors and begin hurried weapons research underground. This point has been widely noted by many experts and analysts including former Mideast Pentagon advisor to the Obama administration, Colin Kahl.

But since the IAEA has not been able to identify any facility in which Iran is verifiably working on nuclear weapons, where does Mr. Dubowitz suggest either the US or Israel attack if the further ramping up of “crippling sanctions” fails to convince Iran to acquiesce to his demands? Moreover, there is no such thing as an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure only, as the infrastructure in question sprawls across much of the country and is in many cases close to major population centers. Therefore any attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure could result in tens of thousands deaths or more that will in all likelihood prompt the population to rally around the government and provide a perfect excuse for Tehran’s hardliners to further suppress all dissenting voices and prolong its rule. Not to mention the fact that while attacks on Iran can be initiated by others, the termination of hostilities will not lie solely with them. Tehran will likely retaliate and could spread the conflict further into Middle East, if not beyond.

Before writing op-eds that advocate policies which increase the likelihood of a military conflict that both the US and Iran claim they want to avoid, perhaps Mr. Dubowitz should also consider the devastation, calamity and human cost that would likely follow.

–Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is an Iran researcher at the Oxford Research Group and a third year doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. He has published widely on Iran. His latest with Paul Ingram and Gabrielle Rifkind is “Iran’s Nuclear Impasse: Breaking the Deadlock”. Follow him on twitter: @essikhan

–Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to various Internet and print media.

*A version of this article appeared on July 5 on www.foreignpolicy.com

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