In contradistinction to war, sanctions are widely portrayed as necessary, almost a healthy medicine to bring about change in the opponent’s policies. However, as the history of the West–Iran conflict proves, sanctions have kept the crisis alive rather than contribute to its resolution. Nonetheless, Western governments do not seem to have lost their dubious fascination for them.
As the call for “crippling sanctions’ became morally questionable last summer when the impressive Green wave shook the streets of Tehran for fear of wrecking the same, today the benign-sounding “smart” or “targeted” sanctions are on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Yet a close look reveals a great deal of wishful thinking as to the effects of such sanctions.
“Smart sanctions,” it is claimed, are a magic wand with which to annihilate evil. In the Iranian case, evil is being identified with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Originally a defense organization erected to counter Iraqi aggression in the 1980s, the Guardians have developed into an expansive socio-politico-economic conglomerate which is believed to possess unrivalled economic and political power in today’s Islamic Republic.
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We are told “smart sanctions” shall target the Guardians’ grip on the Iranian power structure. The much neglected difficulty here is that, while it is widely acknowledged that the bulk of Iranian economy is now in the hands of the Guardians, ultimately, millions of civilians connected to these wide-ranging sectors will be affected. In this view, the gigantic dimension of these alleged “smart sanctions” comes to the fore.
So-called “crippling sanctions” that target gasoline supplies to Iran are underway. In anticipation of those unilateral US sanctions, the world’s largest insurance companies have announced their retreat from Iran. Also three giant oil traders ended supplies to Iran that previously amounted to half of Tehran’s imports. This concerns both the financial and shipping sectors, and affects gasoline supplies to Iran which imports 40 percent of its needs. Needless to say, such sanctions ultimately harm the population. Moreover, a complete implementation thereof would require a naval blockade which amounts to an act of war.
As stressed by civil society figures and economists, the Iranian population at large is paying the price of sanctions. The Iranian economy – manufacturing, agriculture, bank and financial sectors etc. – has been hurt by almost three decades of sanctions. Even today, businesses cannot easily obtain much needed goods on the international market to continue production and must often pay above-standard prices. Moreover, the scientific community has faced discrimination in areas of research as Iran’s technological advances have been slowed down. Finally, reflecting the dangers sanctions pose to the Green Movement, last fall Mir-Hossein Mousavi stated: “We are opposed to any types of sanctions against our nation.” His fellow opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi recently uttered the same formula in an interview with Corriere della Serra.
Sanctions – either “crippling” or “smart’ – ultimately harm ordinary citizens.”Smart sanctions” are as paradoxical as ‘smart weapons” which by supposedly “surgical” strikes take out evil components only. Indeed, much as for its militaristic brother-in-sprit, in the end, the “collateral damage” of “smart sanctions” remains dominant.
More generally, in an increasingly multipolar globalized world and when imposed upon energy-rich countries, sanctions are basically futile as an effective policy tool. Business-driven actors that are only too happy to jump in are far too numerous. Thus, Chinese, Russian, and even U.S. companies (acting via Dubai) have hugely benefitted from the European, U.S.-pressured withdrawal from the Iranian market.
Thus, sanctions – a medicine with which Western policy-circles are so obsessed – are no cure, but a slow poison applied to the civil society and thus to the civil rights movement. Sanctions as prototypical economic warfare in concert with the seasonal flaring-up of war-mongering are a dangerous mix. The deafening “drums of war” continue to bang upon the beating heart of Iran’s civil society.
In contrast to Western proclamations, sanctions do harm civil society even as they cement hardliners’ position. In consequence, Iran’s middle class will be affected by this further isolation of the country, as sanctions punish honest traders and reward corrupt ones. The Guardians, with their presumed 60 Persian Gulf harbors, control the bulk of imports and sanctions will only bolster the trend of flourishing “black channels.”
Indeed, one might argue that the not-so-unconscious “collateral damage” of never-ending sanctions de facto undermines any meaningful transition to more democracy in Iran – a prospect which would set an uncomfortable precedent for the autocracies in the region.
Instead of go on believing that sanctions will one day develop their desired effects, it is high time to put on the brakes. Hence, the only way forward would be to adopt a set of policies that would disarm hardliners on all sides whose business flourishes in the vicious cycle of enmity. Détente alone withholds grist from the mills of radicalism – and attains sustainable de-militarization of Iranian politics. Revoking existing sanctions on goods for civilian use could work wonders that would shake the very fundaments of confrontational postures. The transatlantic “coercive strategy” vis-à-vis Iran – as it is accurately described in Diplomatic Studies – must be suspended, for it undermines prospects for peace and development towards democracy. Last, but certainly not least, one might wonder whether – or when – “surgical strikes” will replace “smart sanctions” as the preferred tactic on the Western political agenda for dealing with Iran.