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The Downside of Sanctions on Iran

Author: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 25, 2010
International Herald Tribune

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As Washington wrestles with the conundrum of Iran, it appears to have shelved the policy that sought to lure Tehran to the negotiating table through blandishments and confidence-building measures.

Instead, the Obama administration has adopted a two-track policy of applying pressure while remaining open to a diplomatic dialogue. The objectives remain the same, but the strategy has shifted from conciliation to coercion.

The most consequential features of the new policy are incremental economic pressure, fortifying the defenses of the Gulf Arab states and enhancing the U.S. naval presence on Iran's periphery.

The idea is that U.N. Security Council resolutions, informal financial prohibitions targeting Iran's investment sector, direct military deployments and substantial arms sales to the Gulf sheikdoms will combine to make Iran pay a price for its intransigence.

A militarily beleaguered and economically distressed Islamic Republic will then sue for peace and return to the negotiating table a more pliable partner.

The problem is that at best, this approach will produce protracted and ultimately inconclusive negotiations.

The principal cause of Iran's economic malaise is mismanagement, inefficiency and an inability to chart a judicious course. Three decades after the Islamic revolution, Iran's ruling clique is still unable to reconcile the inequalities of a market economy with the revolutionary pledge to uplift the dispossessed.

Tehran's solution has been to offer subsidies on critical commodities such as bread, fuel and sugar. The results have been predictably disastrous, and the subsidies continue to impose a heavy burden on the economy.

Economic sanctions could compel the corrupt ruling elite to revisit their foreign policy assumptions. Although often portrayed as stern, pristine ideologues, the mullahs are also greedy politicians sensitive to loss of national income.

However, any impulse to acquiesce will likely be mitigated by the other facet of the pressure track — the militarization of the Persian Gulf.

The massive infusion of U.S. arms into the Gulf states and a menacing American armada patrolling Iran's shores is bound to impact Tehran's strategic calculations. Iran's rulers will sense that the conventional balance of power is tilting dramatically against them.

Lacking a sophisticated arms industry and increasingly unable to access traditional suppliers such as Russia, Iran is then likely to become even more attached to the deterrent value of nuclear arms. It is only through the possession of the “strategic weapon” that Iran will believe it is able to negate the imbalance of conventional power.

So the dual-track policy is effectively bedeviled by its own contradictions. The sanctions may bring Iran back to the table, but it will be an Iran determined not to cede its nuclear trump card.

Beyond these internal inconsistencies, the two-track policy suffers from a misreading of Iranian history.

The most fundamental transformation of Iran's foreign policy resulted not from external pressure, but from internal political change.

During its reformist interlude, the Islamic Republic sought to come to terms with the international community not to evade economic sanctions, but because former President Muhammad Khatami's concept of democratic accountability was married to a responsible foreign policy.

The essence of the reformist vision was its implicit acknowledgement that Iran's isolation stemmed partly from its own conduct. It was Iran's penchant for terrorism and subversion and its irresponsible statements that placed it outside the community of nations.

Although the reformers' quest to usher in a more responsible Iran was obstructed by the clerical hardliners, they did prove that only a regime beholden to popular approbation can be counted on to respect international norms.

The Green movement today is the successor of the reform faction — and it is America's only realistic path to a constructive and durable nuclear compact with Iran.

As with the reformers, the Greens believe that democratic empowerment at home mandates a foreign policy that acknowledges prevailing conventions.

As such, the Greens embrace détente and cooperation as the best means of advancing Iran's practical interests. A viable strategy of engagement would be to embrace and enable the democratic movement pressing for genuine transformation of the Islamic Republic.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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