Two points vital to understanding the sanctions being imposed on Iran: They 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. Let us count the ways.
One: The alternative to sanctions would be doing business as usual — with representatives of Iranian commercial enterprises trotting around the globe buying, selling and trading even as Iran’s supreme leader and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps sponsor terrorism, threaten genocide, plot terrorism and brutally persecute domestic dissidents, Christians, Baha’is and gays. That should be seen as unacceptable — politically, economically, diplomatically and morally.
Two: The ongoing debate over sanctions usefully focuses public attention on the fact that Iran is ruled by a uniquely dangerous and oppressive regime. Why are people apt to forget that? Because the regime’s professional and amateur apologists are sophisticated, skilled and well-funded. And because too many journalists based in or visiting Iran are either credulous or craven.
I recall the interview I heard some years back with an American public-television producer just returned from an assignment in Tehran. He had visited a mosque, which, he said, reminded him of “Lutherans worshipping in the Midwest.” He did notice that “Death to Israel!” was scrawled along one of the walls of the house of worship. But his “guide” told him, “That’s just the way we Iranians talk. Like if we’re stuck in traffic, we say: ‘Death to traffic!’” The producer found that plausible and helpful.
Three: Sanctions are debilitating Iran’s economy — causing hyperinflation, unemployment, steep currency devaluations and capital flight. Do most Iranians understand that they are being made to suffer in order to realize the imperial dreams of rulers who deny them basic freedoms, squander the country’s oil wealth and blatantly falsify election results? Hard to say: I very much doubt that Iranians answer pollsters’ questions candidly. But if the average Iranian doesn’t understand who is to blame, Voice of America and other U.S. government media are wasting taxpayers’ money. President Barack Obama also should be speaking over the regime’s head, directly to the Iranian people.
Four: In London this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “simply unacceptable” for Iran’s current rulers to obtain nuclear weapons, echoing a sentiment Obama has expressed repeatedly. But most Democrats and Republicans agree that the military option must be the last resort. What options remain? As my colleagues Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz recently wrote, sanctions are “the only nonmilitary means of coercing a regime in Tehran that will break any agreement and evade all kinds of inspections.”
The fact is, we are still a long way from waging serious economic warfare against the Iranian regime. We are not yet implementing commercial and financial embargoes with exceptions for humanitarian needs only.
Congress is now considering ratcheting up the economic pressure — perhaps enough to cause the Iranian rial to collapse within 18 months. That would be the point at which Iran’s rulers would have to decide whether their nuclear ambitions are more likely to increase their power or jeopardize it. I am not confident they will make a wise choice. That also could be the point at which protesters take to the streets shouting, as they did in 2009, “Death to the dictators!” — whom I suspect they regard as considerably more onerous than rush-hour traffic.
A revolution against the Islamic revolution is not something we can count on, but it’s more likely when the economy is crumbling.
Five: Sanctions may be most useful after a strike against Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities. At that point, American and other Western diplomats will need to insist that Iran’s rulers verifiably end the nuclear-weapons program, halt terrorism sponsorship and ease domestic oppression. In return: no further damage would be inflicted, and sanctions would be lifted.
Six: Those who rule Iran are ambitious, hateful and ruthless — but not stupid. They smell weakness. Which creates this paradox: If pressure from sanctions increases and if there is a credible threat of military force behind it, a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the nuclear standoff becomes a live possibility. By contrast, irresolution and attempts at appeasement can only enhance the likelihood of conflict by emboldening those who believe they are waging a divinely endorsed war against America and the West.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.