No, the Iran sanctions are not working.
- By Yousaf Butt<p> Yousaf Butt is a nuclear physicist who serves as a scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists. The views expressed are his own. </p>
In a recent Foreign Policy article, Alireza Nader argued that U.S. sanctions on Iran have played an important role in preventing the country from acquiring nuclear weapons. To the contrary, because of their wording, the sanctions have been — and still are — a roadblock to resolving the nuclear issue. As they bite further, and with the value of the rial dropping precipitously, the sanctions are simply shifting the focus of anger in the Iranian street from the regime toward the United States.
As Nader correctly states, "the Iranian regime has not made any major concessions on the nuclear program." Because the sanctions were (ostensibly) designed to influence Iran’s nuclear calculus, it is safe to say that they have objectively failed. There is a reason for this: The legislative text of the sanctions goes way beyond Iran’s nuclear program and, in fact, provides a disincentive for Iran to cooperate with the United States.
As I have noted before, the sanctions can only be lifted after the U.S. president certifies to Congress "that the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary."
Although these are certainly laudable goals, they complicate nuclear negotiations by establishing conditions that have nothing to do with the nuclear program. In fact, many U.S. allies could not satisfy all these conditions: The Bahraini and Saudi governments also crack down heavily on political protests, yet those countries remain unsanctioned by Washington.
So even if Iran were to completely shutter its nuclear program tomorrow, it would still be sanctioned by the United States. But if it’s going to be sanctioned no matter what it does with its nuclear program, why should Tehran make any nuclear concessions at all?
In short, the sanctions are not working because they are not designed to work. Rather than being restricted to nuclear issues, they appear to be crafted to put more and more "crippling" pressure on the populace to — one assumes — agitate them to demand regime change.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement that the sanctions "will impose crippling economic pressure on the Iranian regime in order to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and other dangerous policies."
Nothing of the sort is happening. The nuclear-enrichment program is humming along (under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards), and other unnamed "dangerous policies" — such as, perhaps, Iranian support of the Syrian regime — also continue apace.
It is perfectly clear to the average Iranian who is to blame for her recent misery. In the past few months, as more and more of the sanctions have started biting, the ire of the Iranian people has increasingly shifted away from the regime’s long-term incompetence, repression, and corruption and toward the United States and the West. Although the sanctions technically exempt food and medicine, sanctions on the financial system prevent Iranians from being able to purchase these items from abroad. Many critical medicines and humanitarian goods simply cannot be purchased by hospitals and other entities within Iran, leading to deadly shortages. Ahmad Ghavidel, the head of the Iranian Hemophilia Society, told the Washington Post recently that "This is a blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people by countries which claim they care about human rights."
On Oct. 3, Iran’s currency hit a record low of roughly 36,000 rials to the U.S. dollar — a year ago the rate was about 13,000 rials to the dollar. Although the currency nosedive is certainly putting pressure on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is far from clear whether his political downfall would bring about any meaningful change in Iran’s nuclear calculus: Most (officially vetted) alternative candidates also support Iran’s pursuit of nonmilitary nuclear power, as does the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The president may be under threat, but the regime is not. Protesters have made clear their gripe is with Ahmadinejad and not with the Islamic system. In fact, for the moment, the regime appears delighted that Ahmadinejad is serving as a convenient scapegoat for Iran’s economic woes.
It is possible that an even more reactionary candidate will be elected in the 2013 Iranian presidential election precisely because of the draconian sanctions. When Russia and Argentina went through a similar economic meltdown about a decade ago, their people voted in more nationalist leaders: Vladimir Putin and Néstor Kirchner. And even the U.S.-managed regime change in Iraq has resulted in an authoritarian and pro-Iran government there. Right now, the incipient economic meltdown in Iran, triggered by the sanctions, is simply providing more excuses for the regime to crack down on protests, jam foreign news, and block the Internet.
Washington needs to make crystal clear exactly what Iran needs to do with its nuclear program in order for the sanctions to be lifted; otherwise, as with Iraq, it may stumble into another needless, expensive, and counterproductive war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The language of the current sanctions is distressingly unprofessional and vague on nuclear issues. In fact, the latest round of congressional posturing on Iran, in the form of Senate Joint Resolution 41, declares that "the United States Government and the governments of other responsible countries have a vital interest in working together to prevent the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." It is unclear what Congress means by a "nuclear weapons capability" — by some measures, Iran already has such a capability.
Any country with a fully developed civilian nuclear sector has the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Brazil and Argentina have a nuclear weapons capability. But, just as you cannot get a speeding ticket for owning a sports car that has the capability to go 120 miles per hour, it is not illicit for countries to have the capability to build a nuclear weapon. What is illicit is for Iran to divert its safeguarded enriched-uranium stockpile to any military uses — something the country has never been accused of doing.
In fact, according to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas actually declined to 91.4 kg from the 101 kg reported in May. This decrease in Iran’s "enrich-able" 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile is due to the conversion of some UF6 into metallic fuel-plates for the Tehran Research Reactor. Reconversion back to gaseous form is difficult and time-consuming. Whatever nuclear weaponization "red lines" one cares to draw, Iran is actually retreating from them.
Far from being on a mad dash to weaponize, Iran has repeatedly signaled its willingness to compromise on the nuclear-enrichment issue; the U.S. administration should consider meeting the Iranians halfway by lifting some sanctions. By rigidly refusing to ease sanctions, Washington is offering no meaningful reciprocity, derailing the possibility of a deal with Tehran and essentially helping Iran enrich more uranium.
Ironically, the dysfunctional nature of the sanctions could be seen by some congressional hawks as a benefit. As with Iraq a decade ago, they could say that sanctions have not "worked" and thus justify moving on to the next, and last, resort: war.