Neocons Worried That Sanctions Might Not Kill Enough Innocent Iranians

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.]

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. How do you fine-tune sanctions to hurt just the Revolutionary Guards? America invented the bizarre concept of hurting people without shooting them. The only way you can compel a nation without using bombs and bullets is through a blockade, and Iran has the entire hinterland of Asia to drawn upon for supplies. Russia, China, and for that matter Germany are not going to join a blockade of Iran because the U.S. and Israel don’t want Iran to make a bomb. I’m not sure Barack Obama gets this, but the neocons do. Their receipe is: 1. Sanctions; 2. Sanctions don’t work; 3. Send in the air force. Sanctions are a farce and and a side passage on the road to war.

    There are two ways to stop Iran from getting the bomb. One is to invade and occupy the country — not as in Iraq, but with 500,000 to 1 million troops, and an occupation lasting at least ten years, which would include the “cleansing” of elements implacably hostile to the U.S. and the West. Even this might not work. It would, of course, require the reintroduction of conscription, a nonstarter in the U.S.

    The second option is a massive air campaign lasting (with intervals) for weeks and perhaps months, and entailing massive collateral damage, including tens or hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. “Surgical” strikes will achieve nothing beyond a delay to the Iranian program.

    Either alternative, undertaken without U.N. approval or a declaration of war, would constitute a war crime. The “collateral damage” would be a crime against humanity under the Nuremberg doctrine. In fact, a declaration of war on Iran by the U.S. Congress (also a nonstarter) would not absolve the U.S. civilian and military leadership.

    The idea that any of this can be justified because the U.S., with thousands of nuclear warheads, and Israel, which has at least 200, are “threatened” by an Iran with 1 or 2 or 20 bombs is . . . well, it sounds like something out of “Dr. Strangelove.” If the go order is given in Washington or Tel Aviv, even for a surgical campaign, we will, as Defense Secy. Gates said last year, be fighting jihadis 50 years from now. It would be a bigger mistake than Iraq or even Vietnam. I am reminded of the gaunt old lady in Pennsylvania who looked out on Robert E. Lee’s “unbeatable”army marching to Gettysburg: “Look at pharoh’s army going to the sea,” she said.

  2. Now that it transpires that a section of the US intelligence service people knew about the failed plot to bomb a US passenger jet airlines ( but decided not to act on the information; could it be an attempt to let another 9/11 happen and put the blame on a country of choice, who has nothing to do with the bombing, a la Iraq after 9/11?

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