NIAC Report Reveals Disconnect Between Iran Sanctions’ Goals and Results

by Farideh Farhi

Others have written about the gist of a new report by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) on the impact of sanctions (here, here and here), so I am not going to provide a summary. But some points are worth reiterating. As Stephen Walt points out, the report offers ample evidence for why our current policy of punishing sanctions combined with scant tangible carrots is unlikely to achieve its stated objective of changing the Iranian leadership’s calculations. If anything, this approach reinforces Iran’s current “path of resistance”, which stems from the fear that submission to threats invites more pressure, encourages Iran to advance its nuclear program as a bargaining chip, and arms proponents of an aggressive Iran policy with the easy argument that our professed interest in resolving the nuclear issue is simply empty talk.

Just look at the speech made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Mashhad a few days ago and you will see how his argument is based on a close reading of statements by various US officials. By zooming in on the disconnect between President Obama’s celebration of his sanctions policy as a successful instrument for crippling Iran’s economy — made in front of his American audience — and his message of compassion for the welfare of Iranian citizens — directed at an Iranian audience — Khamenei unpacks what he identifies as a “lack of sincerity” from the Americans.

Let me add that the report’s discussion of the narrative that the current Iranian leaders have developed and the lack of a compelling counter-narrative is not only important for understanding why the sanctions regime has not worked, but also for what it reveals about Iranian politics in general.

As the report points out, while Iran’s so-called pragmatic conservatives or centrists may be more amenable to negotiations and nuclear compromise, they have been unable to formulate a strategy that proposes a way out of the impasse. How could they? If the intent of sanctions in the publicly stated Western narrative is to change the calculus of the Iranian leadership through destructive measures, no politically viable counter-narrative can be constructed. These players can’t simply call for giving in to Western demands, such as giving up uranium enrichment, or submitting to any kind of agreement that treats Iran differently than other countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Even if Western demands are complemented with promises of rich rewards, this dynamic will remain the same. The most critics of Iran’s current approach can do — and have done — is argue that the kind of rhetorically belligerent approach taken by folks like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has facilitated the imposition of multilateral sanctions on Iran. Or, in the words of one critic, turned “the opposition to the Islamic Republic from the American-Israeli position into an international issue.”

As the NIAC report points out, in Iran’s contested political terrain, what movers and shakers cannot do and have not done is call upon Iran’s leadership to give in to demands and pressures that are identified as both unreasonable and harmful. The reality is that no viable political force in any contested polity can take a public stance for “giving in” to external pressure and powers. To be sure, an argument could be made that in some countries such a stance can be taken behind closed doors where influence is really wielded. But Iran is not one of those countries. In Iran, public narratives matter and serve to bolster pursued policies. In fact, the case for sanctions as an instrument for changing the Iranian calculus, as pointed out by the NIAC report, is premised at least partially on the hope that resulting hardship will provide an argument “in favor of de-escalation and détente with the West – by serving as a demonstration of the consequences that hard-line Iranian policies produce.” Such hardship has undoubtedly facilitated criticism of hard-line tactics in Iran, but it has also served to undercut the more strategic call for trusting US intentions and plans.

The situation would have perhaps been different if the sanctions regime had really “crippled” the Iranian economy. But as the NIAC report shows, the government “has adapted the economy to bend but not break.” And, in the current context of economic downturn and difficulties, it makes perfect sense even for the private sector to focus on trying to improve its lot through securing economic concessions from the government rather than trying to change the country’s nuclear policy, which they have little influence over. To cope with the pressure they have developed incentives to collaborate with the government to devise effective policies that can counter the immediate impact of sanctions rather than pushed for a more distant and abstract change in the country’s political policies.

All in all, the argument that sanctions have impacted the Iranian calculus to function in a manner that’s opposite to the policy’s publicly stated goals is amply supported by this report. So much so that one has to wonder about the real intent of sanctions on Iran and whether US officials actually believe what they declare in public.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.