Over the past month, as EU and U.S. sanctions on Iran have escalated and the White House and Congress roll out new "crippling" measures on an almost biweekly basis, the situation for ordinary Iranians has become increasingly dire. Health organizations are reporting medicine shortages that could endanger the lives of tens of thousands of children. The price of food and basic goods has skyrocketed. And middle class households are facing an increasing sense of economic doom.
Many in Washington, including in the Obama administration, continue to assert that the pain inflicted by broad sanctions on ordinary Iranians is simply an "unintended consequence." But the pro-sanctions lobby is increasingly singing a different tune. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, states that "Stronger sanctions will not persuade the regime to accept compromise over its nuclear program" and acknowledges that, "While government fat cats are unaffected, ordinary Iranians must contend every day" with the sanctions.
These are not the words of a sanctions skeptic, but rather a major sanctions supporter. Those that helped craft the sanctions and sell them as the best means to achieve a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute are now saying sanctions are indeed designed to impose collective punishment on the Iranian people to pressure them to rise up against the regime. According to this logic, sanctions will simply make life so dire for the average Iranian that an opposition movement will manifest from within the despair and topple the regime. Others in the pro-sanctions camp have argued that sanctions will drive Iran’s working class to join and revitalize Iran’s indigenous democratic Green Movement. But all of these analyses ignore the long and destructive history of embargo-level sanctions, which have failed to produce democratic regime change.
Instead of speculating from afar, we should listen to the Iranians on the ground who are actually struggling for democracy firsthand. The leaders of the Green Movement and Iranian human rights and democracy defenders have adamantly opposed broad sanctions and warned that confrontation, isolation and broad economic punishment only undermine the cause of democracy and rule of law in Iran. A new report by the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) documents how sanctions are destroying the sources of societal change in Iran. "The urban middle class that has historically played a central role in creating change and promoting progress in Iran are key casualties of the sanctions regime," according to the report.
As documented by the report’s firsthand account on the ground, sanctions are not driving the working class to join Iran’s democracy movement, they are doing the opposite — decimating the Iranian middle class, that has been at the center of the democracy movement, by intensifying their economic struggles. The greatest impediment for Iran’s pro-democracy movement — as we saw at the height of the Green Movement protests in 2009 — has been that working class Iranians who are preoccupied with immediate financial struggles are unable to enlist in a struggle for political freedoms.
Additionally, economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani argues that "As basic services deteriorate, and the shortages and long lines that were common sights during the Iran-Iraq war reappear, the government will once again become not the source but the remedy to their problems." Populist hardliners in Iran have proven adroit at exploiting economic vulnerabilities to consolidate political power, investing in working class constituencies and directly dispersing direct financial aid and even food and basic goods. Hence, sanctions have played a major role in Iran’s transformation from a theocracy to a "thughocracy." And with private businesses increasingly being squeezed out, Iranians are becoming more dependent on the state and "thus unable and fearful of engaging in civil activism" at the risk of losing their livelihood, according to the ICAN report.
At the same time, the ICAN report also finds that women are bearing a disproportionate burdened under sanctions. Educated woman, who "have been the primary engine of socio-political change in Iran," face diminishing opportunities in the public and private sphere as conservatives exploit the political and economic impact of sanctions to advance a regressive social agenda.
But the sanctions are not just robbing Iran of its greatest assets in the struggle for democracy; they are also entrenching anti-democratic forces like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran’s quasi-state, quasi-military, quasi-business conglomerate, has been the chief benefactor of thirty years of sanctions, and has established a near-economic monopoly in Iran as escalating sanctions have crushed Iran’s private sector and driven the middle class out of legitimate businesses. The IRGC itself has been largely untouched from the sanction’s economic impact.
If sanctions do indeed trigger a domestic backlash, it will not come in the form of a pro-democracy movement, but instead in the form of food riots that will provide an easy target for the Iranian regime’s well-honed apparatus of repression. The IRGC’s modus operandi has been to prepare to stamp out any internal unrest in its embryonic phase, and bread mobs will provide the perfect pretext for the IRGC to consolidate its power by commencing an official curfew, using overwhelming force to stamp out any rioters and attempt to eradicate the domestic opposition as Iran drifts towards military dictatorship.
If Washington truly cares about the establishment of democracy in Iran, it should first and foremost understand the nature of Iran’s century long struggle for democracy: the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, the nascent democracy that was toppled with Mossadegh in 1953, and the Green Movement in 2009. As the most successful incarnation of the pro-democracy movement after the 1979 revolution, the Green Movement was able to sustain six months of protest through the networks cultivated throughout the 2009 election campaign. It represented a continuation of the democratic impulse that has run through Iran for the past century, not a spontaneous blowout of blind anger over food prices.
Punishing the social backbone of Iran’s democracy movement in an effort to engineer discontent demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about the movement’s origins and strengths. But advocates of this strategy appear unconcerned with the details. Just as advocates of sanctions supposedly designed to stop Iran’s nuclear program now say they have failed, there will come a time when the rebranded sanctions supposedly aimed at producing a democratic Iran will also be pronounced dead. And with "economic warfare" no longer on the table, sanctions hawks will tell us there is only one remaining option to "liberate" Iran.
Mohammad Sadeghi Esfahlani is a PhD student in Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary, and was the founder of the first virtual political campaign on Facebook in the Middle East.
Jamal Abdi is the Policy Director of the National Iranian American Council. He previously worked in US Congress as a Policy Advisor on foreign affairs.