Recapping Iran Sanctions Logic Ahead of Talks

by Jasmin Ramsey

The following quote from this Washington Post article on last week’s nuclear talks with Iran stood out despite it being a regurgitation of past statements:

“I don’t want to overpromise, but we’re encouraged,” said the official, speaking to reporters accompanying Secretary of State John F. Kerry during a visit to Europe. “Our people who were there felt the sanctions have gotten Iran’s attention,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe diplomatically sensitive negotiations.

Sanctions are working, says the Obama administration, repeatedly, for one reason or another. Yet practically everyone else — including those who initially pushed for and/or continue to tout sanctions on Iran — appear to disagree, while Iran hasn’t budged from its previous negotiating stance.

Sanctions probably won’t work, argues Clifford May, president of the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies — possibly the most effective DC-based advocate of “crippling sanctions” on Iran — while pushing for ongoing sanctions. (This is also a great example of the supporting logic used by hardline sanctions advocates):

[Sanctions on Iran] are unlikely to succeed — if success is defined as stopping the regime’s rulers from developing nuclear weapons — yet they are an essential component of any serious and strategic policy mix.

And why are sanctions on Iran “essential”, according to May?

Sanctions may be most useful after a strike against Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities. At that point, American and other Western diplomats will need all the leverage they can get. Their job will be to insist that Iran’s rulers verifiably end the nuclear-weapons program, halt terrorism sponsorship, and ease domestic oppression. In return: no further damage and the sanctions lifted. If such an agreement can be reached, the conflict will be over, cooperation can begin, and the people of Iran will soon be more free and prosperous, while Iran’s neighbors will sleep more soundly. If such an agreement cannot be reached, continuing and even tightening sanctions will make it more difficult for Iran to replace facilities destroyed after a military option has been exercised.

Now on to Israel’s former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who notes that the kind of sanctions that Iran is currently enduring will likely only harden its leaders’ alleged nuclear drive:

Yes, a harsh sanctions regime might still gain additional supporters, but an Iran with its back against the wall would probably be even more obstinate in its nuclear drive. After all, Iraq was an easy target in the first Gulf War precisely because it had abandoned its nuclear program, and possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi exposed himself to a NATO onslaught by relinquishing his WMDs.

Virginia tech economist and Lobe Log contributor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani argued in October 2012 that the current sanctions regime — and the Ahmadinejad government’s response to it — could harm Iran’s middle/upper classes (otherwise natural allies of the West), and judging by recent reports, he’s probably right.

The counterproductive effects of sanctions have compelled several experts to point out that the so-called “tool” can only be effective if it’s accompanied with the very real possibility of significant relief. Paul Pillar’s thoughts on Congress’ apparently unquenchable thirst for sanctioning Iran back in December 2012 still apply today, a week after members of the Senate and House introduced more legislation that’s unlikely to positively impact the diplomatic process with Iran:

It should be clear from the history of the past couple of years, as well as a little thought about incentives for Iranian policymakers, that simply piling on still more sanctions without more Western flexibility at the negotiating table will not attain the U.S. objective. The sanctions are hurting Iran and are a major reason Iran wants to negotiate a deal. But the Iranians have dismissed the only sanctions relief that has been offered so far as peanuts, which it is. They have no reason to make significant concessions if they don’t think they will be getting anything significant in return. If members of Congress were really interested in inducing changes in Iran’s policy and behavior, they would be devoting as much time and energy to asking why the powers negotiating with Iran evidently do not intend to depart much from their failed negotiating formulas of the past as they would in trying to find some new sanction to impose.

(On Friday Pillar elaborated on how elements of the Israel lobby in the US and Congress are sustaining Iran’s alleged nuclear drive.)

An here’s the essence of a major report on the effects and results of sanctions on Iran released by the International Crisis Group last week:

…rather than adjusting its nuclear policy to remove the sanctions, the [Iranian] regime likely will continue to adjust its economic policy to adapt to them. While important regime constituencies have been harmed by international penalties, not all of them have been harmed equally, and some not at all. Evidence suggests that groups with superior contacts to the state have been able to circumvent sanctions and minimise damage to their interests. Average citizens, by contrast, suffer the effects: reports of widespread shortages, notably of specialised medicines, abound.

Moreover, sanctions as a tool of coercive diplomacy are only as effective as the prospect of relieving them in exchange for policy shifts is real. Yet, sanctions on Iran have become so extensive and so intricately woven that it will be hard to offer significant, concrete relief short of a major – and improbable – turnaround in major aspects of the Islamic Republic’s domestic and foreign policies. That, in addition to considerable mutual mistrust, leaves as the best case outcome for now a time-limited (albeit renewable) suspension or waiver of some sanctions by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) in exchange for time-limited (albeit renewable) Iranian steps providing reassurance as to the program’s peaceful intent.

All this seems to suggest that a) sanctions aren’t working if the goal is to persuade Iran to agree to Western demands on its nuclear program; and b) the Obama administration’s Iran policy is incoherent.

Not necessarily, argued Iran scholar Farideh Farhi, here on Lobe Log last year:

The US’ Iran policy cannot be considered incoherent if the policy objectives and the instruments have become the same. It can still be considered immoral for trying to add to the economic woes of a good part of the Iranian population – irrespective of the fact that the Iranian government is most responsible for those economic woes – particularly at a time when so many people in the world are already suffering from unemployment and economic downturn. But it is not incoherent. It is intended to harass and it is doing so in a calculated and now rather routine, bureaucratic way. Weaning from routines and habits will be hard.

Iranian and Western officials expressed cautious optimism after talks with Iran concluded in Almaty, Kazakhstan last week with reports of moderate sanctions relief being offered by the 6 world-powers P5+1 negotiating team. But only moderate sanctions relief is unlikely to get the Iranians — who will reportedly respond to the offer during the next two months — to budge significantly. Mohammad Ali Shabani, an Oxford University PhD student with a solid understanding of the Iranian perspective, explained why in Al-Monitor on February 28. His conclusion is pertinent ahead of the March/April meetings:

Considering the lack of reciprocity, the upcoming Iranian presidential elections and the mere fact that Jalili’s team only listened in Kazakhstan, it would be wise to refrain from expecting a breakthrough in the near future. What would be wise is to appreciate the consensual desire to turn the talks from events into a real diplomatic process, as well as the time needed to bridge the wide gulf between Iran and the P5+1’s positions. Most importantly, it is crucial that all sides show the political will to move forward — and recognize that more than one party may be pursuing a dual-track policy.

Photo: The 19 September 2012 meeting of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Dr. Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in Istanbul, Turkey. (Credit: European External Action Service – EEAS)

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.


One Comment

  1. I had a piece in the National Interest on this subject — the sanctions are part of the “ritual of diplomacy”:

    In some ways, it seems we are back to early 1950s in dealing with Iran. Ray Takeyh in reviewing Ervand Abrahamian’s new book, The Coup: 1953, the CIA and the Roots of Modern US–Iranian Relations, for the journal Survival, mentions [25] that Abrahamian’s historical research reveals that

    . . . the British Empire was hardly prone to concede to an Iranian government reclaiming its oil fields, and was all along plotting the overthrow of the impudent premier. Whitehall viewed Mossadegh’s nationalisation as not just an infringement of its prerogatives in Iran but as an act that could potentially endanger all of its considerable overseas assets. Mossadegh had to go, and diplomacy was a mere ruse to achieve that end. In this narrative, London never really sought an accommodation with Tehran, but was merely going through the ritual of diplomacy to ensure a broadbased coalition against an embattled Mossadegh.

    It appears, again—that just as in the early 1950s—the P5+1 is now “merely going through the ritual of diplomacy to ensure a broadbased coalition against an embattled” Iranian regime.

    There appears to be a striking cognitive dissonance between the pronouncements of the alleged mortal threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and the foot-dragging approach to doing something about it in negotiations.

    A sign of successful negotiations is the no one gets everything they wanted—concessions have to be made [12] by both sides. If the P5+1 leaders really are as worried about Iran’s nuclear program as they claim to be, then they need to show it by making [26] serious concessions. If they don’t want to give up a few sanctions to obtain Iranian cooperation on this important issue, the inexorable conclusion is that they are not truly concerned about Iran stockpiling more 20 percent uranium, and that the sanctions are probably [27] in place in some vain hope of regime change via collective punishment.

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