Majd: Sanctions Aren’t Working

Author Hooman Majd, who’s much anticipated second book is due this month, writes today in Foreign Policy that the U.S. sanctions program on Iran isn’t exactly going to plan. This contradicts a central talking point of the Obama administration: that the recent political infighting in Tehran (which has not involved the reform or Green movements) is a sign that Iran is feeling the bite of recent sanctions. Majd says that “the latest squabbling is business as usual in the byzantine Iranian political system.”

That system, notes Majd, has “never quite been the absolute and monolithic totalitarian dictatorship we often imagine it to be (and it’s certainly not one with a dictator president).” Rather than the embattled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the focus of much Iranian discontent), the real power center of Iranian politics, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, remains very much in control. Though some infighting has persisted despite his orders to stop, Khamenei accepts a level of political dissent — especially if it comes from Ahmadinejad’s right and doesn’t challenge the Supreme Leader himself.

So why did Khamenei insist that the political wrangling be toned down, at least in public? And what does it mean for what Obama’s claims about his gains versus his actual prospects for progress on the nuclear issue? Majd writes:

Khamenei is no doubt aware that Iran’s enemies are keenly watching for signs of the regime’s weakness, the better to justify military attacks. By emphasizing unity — something former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, no fan of Ahmadinejad, has also done in recent weeks — Khamenei likely means to project an image of strength, internationally and domestically, at a crucial period in Iran’s history. The rallying together isn’t a flailing reaction to sanctions; it’s a concerted show of strength in the face of adversity.

The fact is, there is broad consensus on major foreign-policy issues across the political spectrum in Iran — particularly with respect to the nuclear issue. While U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration claims that the latest and toughest sanctions seem to be working, forcing the Iranians to consider negotiations on the nuclear issue, the Iranian leadership was already in agreement on actual compromises before the sanctions were imposed. […]

The suggestion that tensions within the leadership have been aggravated by the sanctions, or that sanctions are responsible for Iran’s apparent willingness to talk, is a misreading of the political scene in Tehran.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Of course attacks from without tend to unify the country. But, I want to make another crass generalization about a faith. Shia Islam like Catholicism is an orthodox tradition. It is focused on it’s heritage and hierarchy, (especially when compared to protestantism, and Sunni or Sufi Islam. The Sunni and Sufi traditions are leaderless. The largest institutions are likely to be national, with dictated directed by state sponsored Mosques.

    But, the Shia tradition, insisting their leaders be related to the prophet, being lead by an “apostolic” type hierarchy. (Apostolic here referring to the tradition of deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals leading to a pope.) Though I imagine that most Shia are Shia because they were born into that tradition, the tradition itself seems to place immense importance on that order of command. That would suggest that authoritarianism runs deep in Iran.

    Add to that, the Shah’s rule and the many irreverent Iranians that fled the country after the revolution. This would have arguably created a “natural selection” process weeding out those. Further, as is the case here, I’m sure those in the ranks of influence have been vetted and again nonconformists personalities would be screened out. So, considering all that, it is no surprise that the regime remains strong in the face of sanctions.

    It is also understandable that many Iranian ex-pats that have come to these shores are not indicative of Iranians back home. Something drove them from Iran after all. Just as Cuban Americans are often the most hateful people one can find regarding Cuba.

  2. I’ve never been a fan of sanctions, but I think it’s too early to tell whether the most recent round is having any effect. I don’t think Majd knows, either.

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