Farideh Farhi: Escalating Sanctions Could Lead to War

Independent scholar and IPS News contributor Farideh Farhi argues in the ezine, Jadaliyya, that the Obama administration’s attempts to destabilize the Iranian government to the point of submission may affect Iranian decision-making processes in disastrous ways. Here’s why:

After a short and half-hearted attempt, the Obama administration, willingly or otherwise, fell into the trap of effectively continuing the Bush administration’s one-track policy of ratcheting up pressure in the hope that the Iranians will finally cry uncle. Meanwhile, hard-line Israeli influence on domestic US political dynamics prevents Obama from making do with existing draconian sanctions on Iran that more or less constitute economic warfare. Nothing he does is deemed sufficient; there is a consistent requirement for yet more measures to squeeze Iran yet further, and cease uranium enrichment that brings it closer to the status of a real or virtual nuclear state.

The problem with this approach is that the current Iranian leadership perceives itself as left with few options apart from responding to belligerent policies with belligerence of its own. It believes the Obama administration, despite protestations to the contrary, is like its predecessor: more interested in regime change and destabilization than resolving the nuclear issue. Hence, in its response, the Iranian leadership has made a calculated decision to demonstrate it will not be a passive recipient of decisions made by others. It has thus highlighted the costs of escalating sanctions, whether through threats to obstruct or shut down oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz; permitting protestors to attack the British Embassy; or threatening to halt oil exports to European states before European sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank come into effect in July.

This escalating sanctions regime and threat scenario naturally increase the prospect of an accidental conflagration in the Persian Gulf, where both Iran and the US have a substantial military presence and lack sufficient means of communication. In short, the potential for this presumably controlled game of brinksmanship to spin out of control will continue to increase if the current round of negotiations fails to produce results.

Farhi also points out that for the Israelis nothing is more important than maintaining the numerous benefits they derive from their take-but-no-give relationship with the United States:

The current Israeli approach is intended to consolidate Obama’s repeated assurances about America’s unbreakable bond with Israel no matter how much Israeli policies violate international law or threaten American interests in the region. In this calculation, the resolution of the nuclear issue is deemed more dangerous than Iran becoming a state with nuclear-weapon capability, because a resolution will eventually direct attention, even in Israel itself, away from Iran and towards the occupation of Palestinian lands. It will also enhance Iran’s ability to project power in the region, weakening an Israeli strategic superiority seen as dependent upon uncritical US support for Israeli policies.

This is why hard-line advocates of Israel in the US have worked so hard to limit the Obama administration’s options towards Iran through congressional action. For instance, an amendment to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act not only mandates sanctions on firms and countries that deal with Iran’s Central Bank or buy Iranian petroleum; it also denies the President the power to repeal those sanctions during negotiations in exchange for changes in Iranian policies. Unlike the previous measures, now only Congress can lift the most severe sanctions ever imposed. Various Israeli lobbies in the US have even tried, so far unsuccessfully, to promote congressional legislation that effectively bans any diplomatic interaction with Iran. Pending resolutions in both the Senate and House also call for complete suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities, a verifiable end to Iran’s ballistic missiles program, and additionally “oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” Considering that Iran has repeatedly and emphatically stated that it would not accept any deal that would deprive it of its recognized rights as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under international scrutiny, such maximalist demands have no other purpose than to prevent a resolution on the basis of some sort of compromise.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.