Iran and the Problem with Sanctions

With American allies not cooperating, the logic behind Obama's Iran sanctions is eroding

A few months back, Lara Friedman wrote a piece for Foreign Policy concerning the sanctions that were going to be slapped on Iran as punishment for the nuclear program.  In the article she quoted of colleague of hers saying, “Sanctions are the sign of a failed policy, period.”  A while later I wrote a post agreeing with Stephen Walt’s argument that Washington indeed had no coherent policy for Iran.  Washington is mixing the ‘open-hand’ approach, urging dialog and compromise one day and rejecting deals and refusing debates the next all the while pushing sanctions and refusing to remove a military strike from the table.

It is not difficult to see why the Islamic Republic has little or no trust in an American government that seems to have no idea how to fully engage a ‘hostile’ government.  It seems, for now, that the US has put all of its cards into the entirely ineffective sanctions basket.  Sanctions are the political equivalent of withholding desert from a child who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables: if the child doesn’t want to eat the broccoli, he will put up with no desert (of course, with Iran, the child is actually a mature government potentially seeking nuclear weapons).  It doesn’t matter how strong the sanctions are if the sanctioned party is determined.

Friedman uses the example of Cuba under American sanctions:

They seem to believe that the message of sanctions is: you will see things our way or we will sanction you into submission.

Where does this delusion come from?  Maybe back in 1960, when the US first imposed sanctions on Cuba, someone could have believed this. But today?  Sanctions still haven’t worked in Cuba (unless you define “working” as impoverishing the population).  They didn’t work in Haiti or Iraq. They aren’t working today in North Korea, Syria, or Gaza (or even Iran, where far-reaching sanctions have been in place for three decades).

The record is clear: sanctions may make angry Americans and frustrated policymakers feel less impotent, but they don’t force regimes to fold or change their behavior, and they don’t motivate populations to overthrow their leaders.  In fact, they usually have the opposite effect.

[tweetmeme] Ok, so sanctions are imperfect, ineffective and counterproductive, but at least the US has the support of its international allies in this unwise ‘policy.’  After the UN imposed a fourth round of basic sanctions on Iran earlier this year (a pact onto which Russia and China – two countries typically opposed to the idea – signed on) the US and the European Union passed more stringent restrictions economic deals with Iran.  Unfortunately for the sanction-supporters in Europe and the US, states from around the globe are increasing their ties with Iran.

The LA Times is reporting that Russia, China, Turkey and India are all increasing trade and investment with Ahmadinejad’s Iran, raising questions about not only the commitment of America’s allies, but also the wisdom behind further sanctioning Iran.  Now that America’s allies are not living up to the Obama Administration’s political expectations, there is every reason to believe that Iran, like Cuba, will continue its present course despite the economic punishment from the West.  While one option (a boneheaded decision to use military force) should be rejected out of hand, it would seem that Obama must forge a new, and functioning, Iran policy or helplessly cling to the sinking sanctions boat.

Photo from Race for Iran

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