Rial Talk on Iranian Sanctions

Iran is hurting. Bad. That is one thing that is becoming exceptionally clear as we move into 2012. The real question that’s on most people’s lips is “will the pressure on Tehran actually work to change the state’s behavior”? That is, that’s the question on most people who actually are paying attention to the issue are asking. As far as everyone else, they’re asking “are we going to war with Iran?”, a question I plan to look at next post. Nobody can dispute that the sanctions placed upon Iran are extremely tough in nature; while short of a full economic embargo, many areas of the Iranian economy have now been targeted by national and supranational governments and entities.

The European Union has tentatively agreed to ban Iranian oil exports; Japan is seeking to step up their sanctions game to be near the same-level as those imposed by the United States. Even China is doing Iran no favors, as it attempts to extract further price concessions from Tehran on the oil it imports.The entirety of the efforts makes the histrionics of the Republican Presidential campaigns over Iran seem baffling once you look at the scope and their effect. There does exist a divide among academics and analysts on whether the sanctions will have their intended effect, bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table on their nuclear program and eventually forego its path towards nuclear weapons. On one end of the argument, Fareed Zakaria had an op-ed in The Washington Post the other day, espousing the current weakness of the Iranian regime. The sanctions, in Zakaria’s opinion, are having precisely the outcome we wanted, an Iran sapped of strength.

On the other end of the spectrum, some believe that the US has gone too far in our stance, such as Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney, who believe that the only possible outcome that the sanctions can hope to produce is regime change and nothing less. Vali Nasr similarly argues that international pressure will make conflict more, not less, likely. In doing so, he notes that the previous stoic endurance of Western sanctions has been broken, and has been replaced with an upswing of bellicose rhetoric and action:

It wasn’t preordained that Iran would opt for battle. For much of the past year, its leaders have debated how best to deal with Western pressure. The alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which U.S. officials uncovered in October and blamed on Iran, suggests a faction has been making the case for direct confrontation with the West. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had hoped the September release of two Americans, hikers arrested by Iranian authorities and charged as spies, would shield Iran from further pressure and even create a diplomatic opening with the U.S. on the eve of his trip to the UN. Instead, Ahmadinejad went home empty-handed.

Iran’s rulers believe the new Middle East is a greater strategic challenge to the U.S. than to Iran. For the U.S., the region will be far less pliable under rising Islamists than it was under secular dictators. As those Islamists take control of governments from Morocco to Egypt, new opportunities arise for Tehran to forge diplomatic and economic ties. Consequently, the Iranian regime thinks it can counter international pressure on its nuclear activities long enough to get to a point of no return on a weapons program. Rather than discourage this aggressive Iranian position, U.S. policy is encouraging it, making a dangerous military confrontation more likely. There are no easy options for dealing with Iran, but not persisting in a failing strategy is a good place to start.

I will agree with the idea that Iran is being backed into a corner and that makes the chance of rhetoric spilling over into action all the more likely. Despite that, I have to question the idea that were the pressure of Iran less that this would make them more amenable to demands that it freeze its nuclear program. Likewise, the fact remains that Iranian rhetoric against us, be it vocal or muted, would not preclude Tehran from continuing its use of proxies to strike against United States assets abroad, which seems rather aggressive to me. Further, the main point that Nasr fails to note in his piece is that for many in the national security community the current course of action is the soft option for influencing Iranian decision making. Iran has time and again over the past decade made offers of reconciliation, only to either be spurned by the West as being unserious or to have the decisions collapse upon reaching Tehran.

What’s more, the latest effort by President Obama, the best chance that Iran has had in years to reset relations, was scoffed at, leading Iran down its current path. The US strategy also has included a direct outreach to the Iranian people or at least attempts to do so, leaving me to wonder what policies Nasr and Maloney have in mind to discourage Iran’s aggression. I am most likely one of the largest proponents of strong diplomatic efforts that you will ever meet, but at some point sticks are necessary if offers of carrots are rejected. If we really do want to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear program, an argument that few would disagree with even if the overall effect of Iran succeeding is hotly debated, the further options available to the United States beyond its current strategy all fall much heavily upon overt and covert military abilities.

Ali Vaez has it right, that in dealing with Khamenei, we can’t simply assume that the current strategy will work without planning for all contingencies. The Ayatollah, while holding supreme command of the country, does not have the best strategic instincts known to man. We’ll assume that Iran as a state and Khamenei as a leader will act in a rational manner, which is to say that choices that prompt eradication of their existence in their respective forms will be avoided. However, the idea that Khamenei will act in a predictable fashion is to give him far too much credit. If we’re only focused on the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program as a goal, and not a total change of its behavior as a state, there must be a respectable “out” available to them. As luck would have it, such an out exists: the conditions laid out in the Security Council resolutions passed on the Iranian nuclear program all list the measures that must be taken by Iran to satisfy both the UN and the IAEA on its program. None stipulate that if they are able to prove its peaceful nature that the country must still dismantle its program. If Iran wants nuclear energy as badly as it claims, it must take the steps of a responsible state to prove its intentions.

Finally, one has to note that many articles and thought-pieces on the overall effect of Iranian sanctions gloss over the range and scope of the targeted facets of the Iranian economy. As Colum Lynch pointed out several weeks ago, it’s striking to see how far the common wisdom surrounding sanctions has changed over the past few years:

U.S. and European diplomats, meanwhile, have lauded the effect of tougher sanctions, saying they have begun to inflict real pain on outlaw regimes. In Syria, trade and investment is off 50 percent and the economy is expected to shrink by as much as 12 to 20 percent this year, according to a report by the New York Times that showed evidence that the sanctions, while hitting the regime’s financial backers, were also having an impact on ordinary people.

But the humanitarian cost of sanctions has not figured in the U.S. debate on sanctions. In a Senate hearing last week, not a single administration official or U.S. lawmaker even mentioned the potential humanitarian impact of oil sanctions on Iranian civilians. Instead, they explored ways to promote Iranian freedoms, including proposals to prevent Iran from jamming radio frequencies or blocking Internet, Twitter and Facebook access.

As a sum, national and international sanctions have now moved swiftly beyond the original pressure points of the first UN Security Council embargoes launched over half a decade ago. In the original round, Iran found itself under the effect of more far targeted efforts in the provisions of SC/1737, which only focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the assets of those involved. That limitation quickly was stripped away, as first an arms embargo was imposed in SC/1747, a travel ban and an expanded freeze on Iranian assets. Round three, SC/1803, upped the call for states to monitor Iranian banks, ships, aircraft and individuals, but it was Round Four that have done the most damage. Under Resolution 1929, the Islamic Republic was banned from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, tightened the arms embargo, among a host of other punitive financial measures. So far, all of these have been focused on Iran’s nuclear development and the pieces of their armed services which could easily be converted to a military nuclear program. The national sanctions that are set to go into effect go beyond those limits, striking at the core of the Iranian economy.

As of now, the humanitarian scope of the new measures that the United States is launching against the Iranian Central Bank and the coming partial and total oil embargoes have gone undiscussed. There will be no “Oil for Food” program for Iran, not after the telling lessons of the 1990s and Baghdad’s amazing ability to circumvent those measures. Nor is there any indication such a program on the minds of Western officials. With the rial currently fluctuating on the market, having dipped to a low of 17,000 against the dollar, the price of commodities has skyrocketed inside Iran in recent months. Food costs alone have increased 40% in recent days. It pains me to know that life won’t be easy for these people who have no say in who rules them, but I can’t see any better strategy in attempting to influence those protectors of the Revolution. It is my firmest hope that Iran chooses to legitimately return to negotiations rather than attempt to bluster its way through international sanction or launch actual kinetic action by the state against the US and its allies. Despite my hopes, no matter which choice of action Iran takes moves forward, there is one group sure to suffer in the near-term: the Iranian people.

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