The Sanctions Aren’t Working

In its failing drive to stop Iran’s nuclear program, the West is only empowering hardliners and pushing the Iranian people to the brink of poverty.


Only days prior to the official commencement of the European Union’s embargo on Iranian oil, Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, penned an op-ed in Foreign Policy entitled "Battle Rial," calling again — as he has repeatedly — on the United States to step up what he admits is "economic warfare" against Iran and its more than 76 million people. Economic sanctions kill people — as shown vividly in Iraq — and may eventually lead to military attacks that will kill even more. This is not "defending democracy," but advocating war and destruction.

In contradiction to the statements by the most senior officials of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to CIA Director David Petraeus, Dubowitz asserts that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. He does not present a shred of evidence or even a reference for his claim, which contravenes even Israeli military and intelligence assessments — notably that of IDF chief Benny Gantz and the former heads of both Mossad and Shin Bet. Moreover, despite questions over alleged past weapons research, the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence of the diversion of fissile material from Iranian nuclear sites for non-peaceful purposes.

Although Dubowitz’s approach has not yet received a ringing endorsement from the Obama administration, many in Congress have been more than ready to lend a sympathetic ear. Dubowitz calls upon the White House to support legislation that would blacklist the entire Iranian energy sector as a "zone of primary proliferation concern." This legislation, in its attempts to link Iran’s entire energy sector to its unproven nuclear weapons program, is an unprecedented move that seeks to deliver a knockout blow to Iran by further eroding the revenues obtained through oil sales, which account for some 80 percent of the country’s export earnings. It is these funds that allow the country to purchase basic foodstuffs such as wheat and grain to feed the population, preventing millions of households from being plunged into deprivation and hunger. If one wishes to take Dubowitz’s argument to its logical extreme, why not just embargo the foodstuffs and medicine directly — they sustain Iran’s nuclear scientists and personnel, after all — so that they are incapable of furthering the technical development of Iran’s nuclear program?

Sanctions were initially supposed to directly target Iran’s nuclear program — and then, as the net widened, military organizations such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and its engineering arm, the Khatam-al-Anbia, along with persistent human rights violators, such as officials of the Ministry of Intelligence. However, the sanctions have turned into an all-encompassing iron fist geared to the destruction of Iran’s most important source of revenue, the energy sector. Dubowitz even advocates targeting Iran’s automotive industry — a sector that provides thousands of jobs to ordinary Iranians with no discernible connection to the country’s nuclear program.

If Dubowitz’s aim is not a diplomatic solution, but rather driving an already angry and restive population to the point of despair so that it rises up against the ruling theocracy, he should plainly state so. But is such a goal even achievable at the present time? The aftermath of Iran’s hotly contested — and by many accounts fraudulent — 2009 presidential election saw unprecedented protests and the rise of the home-grown Green Movement, which had been in the making for some 20 years. The movement did not realize its goals because the opposition was disorganized and did not have a comprehensive plan for how to proceed. Its leadership and its advisers were quickly rounded up, jailed, and silenced. The opposition, both inside and outside the country, is now in an even weaker state. Still, the opposition inside Iran and a significant portion of the opposition in the diaspora reject foreign intervention and sanctions as a form of collective punishment — they know their enfeebled position isn’t helped by economic warfare and the threat of military attacks.

Although there is little doubt that the hardliners around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office, the top brass of the IRGC, and leading figures in the Intelligence Ministry will continue to repress opposition to their rule, the constant state of emergency will only benefit them and legitimize their raison d’être in the face of an external enemy. The remaining oil revenues, which flow into the country from oil exports to China, Japan, India, and others, will stay firmly in the hands of the hardliners and the repressive organs of the state. Meanwhile, youth unemployment — which accounts for 70 percent of unemployment — will rise higher, and the quality of life of the underprivileged and retirees reliant on government handouts for their meager existence will decline further.

Punitive sanctions have a poor track record in achieving U.S. goals. One should recall the clear failure of comparable sanctions in Cuba as well as Iraq, where they eventually led to a military invasion (based on lies and exaggerations) at great human cost. Although regimes under such sanctions might be weakened in relative terms to other states in the international system, such steps only make them relatively more powerful vis-à-vis their respective populations and civil societies.

In the space of a single article, Dubowitz also illustrates the inexorable slide from crippling sanctions to military conflict. Instead of considering the possibility of engagement, he ends the article by describing what the United States should do if "economic warfare" were unsuccessful: "The president needs to unite the country in moving beyond sanctions and preparing for U.S. military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons program," he writes.

The very language Dubowitz employs misrepresents the facts and ignores the devastating human cost of the policies he so zealously advocates. Military attacks occur not against a program, but against nuclear facilities — and they would be a clear violation of international law, in the absence of a U.N. resolution and so long as the Islamic Republic has not attacked any other country. Iran’s nuclear technology, moreover, is the result of years of research. It cannot be destroyed by killing a few individuals or razing some nuclear installations to the ground. There is also no such thing as an attack only on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, as it sprawls across the entire country, often close to major population centers. Thus, any attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will result in thousands of casualties, if not more.

The Iranian government also shares responsibility for tensions having reached this point. But it is not the sole party deserving of blame. And despite unprecedented "economic warfare," it will be able to continue its nuclear program — albeit at the cost of great suffering of ordinary Iranian people. A more balanced and measured diplomatic strategy is needed if the West is genuinely interested in ensuring Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful and cease to pose a proliferation risk.

Unparalleled economic warfare and military threats, on the other hand, will not only destroy the prospect of democracy in Iran for many years to come, but will consolidate an already authoritarian regime and plunge one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East into economic destitution and apathy. Dubowitz should ponder the consequences of what he suggests before so cavalierly threatening the lives of millions of Iranians.

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