Iran and the Problem of Sanctions, Con’t

Confronting Ahmadinejad's belligerence with aggressive sanctions and the threat of war only deepens Iran's distrust of the West and further inhibits a meaningful compromise

Fresh off of commenting on the unproductive sanctions on Iran, I was directed to two articles on the subject (thank you Mr. Dunn!).  Both articles are worth reading and, thankfully, escape the tired soap-box aggressive rhetoric found in far too many pieces on Iran in the West.  The first article highlights the inability of sanctions to effectively change Iranian behavior and the second is a more balanced look at what both sides (Iran vs. Washington) actually want to achieve.

The first point that I want to underline in Gary Sick’s analysis concerns the futility and, indeed, the counterproductive results of the American-led sanction effort.  I’ll let Mr. Sick do the comparison with the Iraqi sanctions:

Sanctions do not persuade dictatorial regimes to abandon projects that they think are central to their security and survival or even their self-image. Just look at Saddam Hussein. The international sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1980s make the current Iran sanctions appear anemic in comparison. Every item that went in and out of Iraq was subject to approval by a UN committee dominated by a vindictive United States. Yet, although Iraq had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier, Saddam could not bring himself to let his own people and his enemies know that. Instead he was prepared to gamble that the United States would not attack him.

One of the reasons for this bad bet was that he and his cronies were doing so well under the sanctions that there was no immediate necessity to come clean. They, after all, controlled the smuggling routes. And their henchmen managed the thriving and enormously lucrative black market. As for concern with their own people, a rotund Tariq Aziz, sitting with a fine Scotch and a Cuban cigar, informed a worried UN representative that it would be good for the Iraqi people to lose some weight. An Iraqi friend of mine told me at the time that the sanctions had made criminals of the entire Iraqi middle class, which had to resort to illegal behavior in order to survive. The biggest – and most successful – of this new criminal class was the privileged group immediately around Saddam Hussein.

Sanctions are not going to push Iran to give up its quest for nuclear power (or weapons).  It is possible that the internal dysfunction of the Iranian regime could force a change; however changes of this sort would not be the result the sanctions – which brings us to Rami Khouri.  Mr. Khouri focuses on how the current impasse can be resolved.  With a quick look at the both the problems of the Iranian government and the cultural distrust many Iranians have of the West, Khouri makes it clear that tough talk and threats by the West are not going to push Iran one way or another.  America must try to find a compromise through accommodating American and Iranian interests.  Sanctions and the threat of military action do nothing to quell the fear of betrayal that is present in Iran:

The Iranian sense of history is not about past grandeur only. It is also heavily defined by a sense of being betrayed and exploited by many Western powers in the modern era, especially on nuclear industry issues. Iran — like Turkey and Israel, but unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia — insists on safeguarding its national interests and will not play by the deceitful old double-standard rules set in London, Paris, Moscow, Washington and, more recently, Tel Aviv. This is mainly a demand for dignity and respect, intangibles that are largely missing from the American-Israeli diplomatic lexicon, which is more anchored in power.

I suspect that this can be achieved, though, if the second requirement for a successful negotiation is addressed seriously, which is a restoration of Western and Security Council confidence in Iran’s declarations about its nuclear industry. If Iran is not hiding a secret nuclear weapons program, it should not hesitate to provide all the answers to the questions posed to it by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — yet Tehran’s position is that it will not provide such answers in an atmosphere of threats, sanctions and wild assumptions of its nuclear guilt and deviousness by the US-Israel-led camp.

[tweetmeme] The folly in the current approach is that it unnecessarily provokes the authoritarian aspects of the Iranian government and even reinforces the belligerence of Ahmadinejad.  The current ‘policy’ for Iran is simply backing Ahmadinejad’s regime into a corner and providing a scapegoat: the current Iranian leadership can easily turn America’s aggressiveness into a scapegoat for the problems that are currently plaguing the country.  Back to Sick:

The key question about Iran today is not whether it will be attacked or collapse under sanctions. It is whether Iran is capable under its present leadership to take a sober decision about how to deal with the outside world. The Revolutionary Guards have established a dominant position in Iran’s military, its economy, and its politics. Iran increasingly comes to resemble the corporatist states of southern and eastern Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s that we call fascist. Iran is conducting an interior battle with its own demons, from the millenarians on the far right who choose to believe that Khamene`i  is the personal representative of God on earth, to the pragmatic conservatives who simply want a more responsible leadership, to the reformists of the Green movement whose objective is to put the “republic” back into the Islamic Republic by giving the people a greater voice.

This is a yeasty and unpredictable mix. No one knows what is going to happen next.

And this is the reality that the Obama administration must deal with. The danger is not that the administration will back the wrong horse in Iran. The real danger is that the Obama administration will be so preoccupied with domestic American politics and its constant demand to look tough when dealing with Iran that it will inadvertently rescue this cruel but hapless regime from its own ineptitude by providing a convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in Iran.

It is nice to finally read some analyses of the situation in Iran that actually delve into the fundamental issues that are currently preventing an agreement.  Far too often Western press concentrates on the crisis from an American point of view.  A resolution requires two parties and currently the US is acting if only Western interests and fears matter.  It is time for Obama to truly reach out to Iran.  Without taking the Iranian point of view into account, the West is simply providing excuses for Iran to remain belligerent and defiant.

Photo from Uncoverage

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