“Crippling” Sanctions Will Still Be Ineffective

Target the culprits in Iran; stop punishing the innocent.


Official meetings, secret encounters, and private discussions between Western countries, the United Nations, and Iran have not produced sustainable results. Nor is it likely that either a September deadline set by G-8 nations or proposals from Iran’s foreign ministry will break the impasse when neither side is presenting much that is new or changed. Sources in Iran suggest that one reason why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is because he shares Khamenei’s desire for nuclear weaponization, a disturbing prospect that might be less than a year away Western intelligence sources concluded recently.

Even if a grand bargain could be reached, covering all issues of concern to the West and Iran from the nuclear program, to terrorism, to Middle East peace, to Iran’s frozen assets, and U.S. recognition of the regime’s legitimacy, it is likely to end up having little mettle. The hard-liners in Iran do not have a track record of negotiating in good faith — in Ahmadinejad’s own words: "nothing will change."

Meanwhile the U.S. Congress is gearing up for another round of sanctions, with the understanding that the Obama administration is generally receptive. This time the targets are Iran’s refined petroleum imports, trade insurance, and long-distance transportation. Soon the White House and State Department will be on board that same carousel, having stated publicly that the opportunity for negotiations "will not remain open indefinitely."

Three decades of extensive sanctions have slowed but did not stop the Islamic Republic’s move toward nuclear energy, weapons of mass destruction, support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and internal repression. Iranian leaders themselves have nary been inconvenienced, other than their costs of doing "business as usual" going up. Faced with long-term sanctions, they diverted allocations to continue policies and projects abhorred by the West. Limited resources led them to impoverish the people (currently facing at least 12.5 percent unemployment and 28 percent inflation), endanger civil aviation (at least 10 fatal crashes since 1980), and denude the environment (much of the Zagros range has been turned into cropland) rather than abjure their chosen paths. Simultaneously, externally imposed economic, diplomatic, and travel constraints have only strengthened the regime’s internal authority by restricting many ordinary Iranians from the free world.

Nothing in the newly proposed sanctions suggests that this time will be different — that they will truly hurt Iran’s leaders or the organizations linked to their favored projects. What resources remain available would continue to be diverted for adventures abroad and nuclear research at home. Knowing that U.S.-facilitated regime change is unlikely, the government in Tehran and Qom has less to fear from outside.

So what types of sanctions could be efficiently and specifically directed against Iran’s troublemakers — preferably with the endorsement of the EU and U.N. Security Council, but if necessary, without such assistance?

A broad application of sanctions would be politically counterproductive at this time when ordinary Iranians are rebelling against the theocrats – the opposition would be weakened if dwindling resources became further concentrated in the regime’s grip. New sanctions must be crafted and old ones modified with sufficient care so they no longer disrupt the lives and welfare of the majority of Iranians.

The Obama administration, whose members speak often of direct engagement, should actually be lifting some sanctions. Engagement should include deploying soft power that reconnects the world with Iran’s ordinary citizens, including low- and mid-level bureaucrats, not the leaders. Individuals rising up against the theocracy will benefit from an easing of current sanctions that restrict their ability to communicate, access technology, travel, and use other forms of electronic, intellectual, and physical interaction — forms that served freedom’s cause so well during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (at least at first), and the current "green revolution." The U.S. Senate’s adoption of the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act is a favorable step. Microsoft’s lifting of its own ban on Windows Instant Messenger usage inside Iran would be another.

The time has come to utilize sanctions sparingly yet effectively, strategically yet humanitarianly. To make a new sanctions regime, or even old ones, truly crippling, the United States and its allies must focus their attention on specific individuals and particular organizations in Iran. The sanctions should thwart those within the Iranian administration who seek nuclear weapons, fund terrorism, obstruct Middle East peace, and trample on basic rights. Likewise, smart sanctions could be aimed at disrupting public and private agencies in Iran that provide resources, technologies, and ideologies for violence.

Financial, travel, communication, and legal restrictions could be placed against Iranian leaders, their immediate families, prominent political supporters, business partners, scientists, militiamen, state institutions, and nongovernmental organizations involved in disrupting world peace. Essentially, those persons and entities would have to pay an extremely high price if they continue hostile behaviors and illicit actions.

Their personal and organizational bank accounts outside Iran can be frozen. Interactions with foreign financial systems, directly or indirectly, by Iranian institutions that process illegal transactions should be blocked. The movement of incumbent politicians beyond Iran could be restricted by international arrest warrants for human rights violations. The targeting of assets, communications, and mobility was deployed successfully against the leadership of al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11. Similar techniques must be utilized under the umbrella of new international, multinational, or unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Individuals and institutions warranting these types of sanctions include Iran’s supreme leader, president and office of the presidency, the chairman and other members of the Guardian Council that oversees all electoral and bureaucratic appointments, intelligence and defense ministers and ministries, leadership and corporations of the Revolutionary Guard with its externally directed Quds Force and associated Basij militia, the Central Bank, directors of the nuclear and missile programs, along with the head of the judiciary, the chief prosecutor, and the warden of the notorious Evin prison. Such actions are not new — they have been used previously in connection with regimes in the Philippines, Bosnia, Serbia, Liberia, and Sudan.

If international action is directed specifically against high-ranking Iranian individuals and corporations causing internal repression and external strife, rather than the Iranian people as a whole, those sanctions will send an unmistakable, tangible, message that the world seeks to be just and fair. Moreover, such action will further mitigate and possibly eliminate the threat posed by Iran’s leaders and institutions against their people and the West. As important, it will be a clear signal to other states, such as North Korea and Burma, about the consequences of treading paths of repression and confrontation.

When the United States and its foreign partners embark once more down the road of sanctions, policymakers should bear in mind the end goal: crippling the fear-mongering despots while empowering the freedom-seeking citizens of Iran. Iranians from all walks of life have emphasized to me repeatedly that only when the price of fanaticism becomes too high for those engaged in globally harmful activities, and the cost of association becomes too odious for their partners, acolytes, and surrogates, will the government of Iran be dissuaded from its destructive ways.

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