Ladan Cher writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
On Iran and sanctions, a necessary clarification: “Crippling” is not synonymous for “working”
In the tug-of-war between Iran and the United States, sanctions remain the Hail Mary approach to an ever-present picture in international politics: a nation wants to avoid military force but needs to take some kind of political action in response to the behavior of another nation. The events of the last few weeks have reignited a spotlight on the issue: sanctions are hitting Iranians drastically harder than before by limiting civilian access to life saving medicines, and within hours of President Obama’s reelection a new round of sanctions against Iran related to media censorship went into effect. The new round of sanctions and accompanying harsh economic consequences felt by Iranians will likely encounter a familiar response. Journalists, scholars and citizens will ask, “Are sanctions working?” and sanction proponents will reference the crippling economic effects as evidence of “Yes, they are working.” It’s time to reconsider the approach to this very important question.
A journalist posed the question to Kevan Harris of the United States Institute for Peace in Washington earlier this year. He answered, “[No]. The question has been asked for the past 3-4 years by US editors, and since it’s been asked repeatedly, it seems these editors won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I’m headed to Iran in September – before then I’d wager there’s not going to be any ‘sanctions working’ going on.” The impatience is not unique to Harris, a USIP sociologist who has spent extended periods of time in Iran for field research. Efficacy of a sanctions approach is a polarizing topic, and many get impatient with the Western journalism community’s consistent focus on it.
However, the problem is not the question of whether sanctions are “working”, which is a perfectly reasonable inquiry, but rather the way in which it is answered. The response to this question, and general discourse about the consequences of sanctions, is plagued by a causal connection between the immediate effects of sanctions crippling the Iranian economy and sanction “working.”
President Obama frequently boasts about sanctions as a formidable muscle in his foreign policy. At the third and final presidential debate, the president declared: “As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” This was immediately followed by boasting about crippling the Iranian economy as apparent supporting evidence for his assertion. Governor Romney did not attack President Obama’s argument, but rather piggy backed on it, going above and beyond support for a sanctions approach. The “keep on crippling and Iran will not get a nuclear weapon” logic seems unchecked in American political discourse.
Indeed, it’s difficult to see beyond the crippling. Iran’s laundry list of economic woes is not in short supply. The rial is disintegrating and continues to break its own records by hitting new lows. Those lows are matched by inflation-rate-highs (at 24.9% in October, the highest rate in seven years). Prices of basic goods in Iran continue to climb higher as the currency continues to collapse and public reaction to the currency crash peaked last month in the form of clashes between public protestors and riot police. Imports of essential goods have taken a hit, even drastically limiting citizens’ access to life saving medicines. The Iranian government’s sanction-anxiety is high and evident in reactionary, but unpromising, legislation such as the latest restriction on imported luxury goods. And although the Iranian government’s mismanagement has contributed to the mess, this is the picture of Western sanctions gravely wounding Iran’s economy.
But before making the leap between sanctions crippling Iran and sanctions working, it is necessary to identify whom these sanctions are crippling and whether that crippling guarantees the effectiveness of a sanction–that is actual policy change.
Irrespective of Iran’s economic crisis and calculating the role of sanctions as its instigator, we are caught up in a flawed analysis of whether sanctions are succeeding. Success is measured by the achievement of a goal, and it is easy to forget the ultimate goal of sanctions against Iran: to elicit a change in nuclear policy. Referring to crippling as synonymous with “working” overlooks the distinction between harming the Iranians economically and harming their nuclear policy. Sanctions are hurting the Iranian government insomuch as they are hurting Iranian citizens.
An overestimation of the causal link between the crippling of a country’s economy and instigating policy change by that country’s complicated government jeopardizes an accurate response to the question that began this article. The frequently cited “crippling” is only half the battle of the sanction. The problem is that the effectiveness of a sanction is an all or nothing inquiry. The economic pain inflicted is only as effective as the end goal of nuclear policy change. It’s still possible that the hurt to Iranian economy could be all for naught. Harming the Iranian economy, even drastically, does not promise the eventual effectiveness of the sanctions. It is a means to an end, and in Iran’s particularly complicated landscape, the economic effects sanctions are not a guaranteed means to an end of regime policy change.
Instead of addressing every new round of sanctions with the standard inquiry of “will these sanctions be harsh enough to finally work?,” a more fruitful consideration is whether Iranian people are feeling the blunt of sanctions that will only become harsher but to no avail in terms of influencing the regime’s nuclear activity? After so many years of sanctions against Iran and sanction failures against their next-door neighbor Iraq, the more useful analysis is whether, despite all the crippling, “enough” actually exists.
Ladan Cher reports about international law, human rights and the Middle East. She earned a JD in 2011 from American University Washington College of Law where she focused on international law and passed the New York bar examination in 2011. She wrote a comment for the Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law on attempted recognition of Sharia divorce in United States courts. As a student attorney, she worked at the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative and the International Monetary Fund’s Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism Unit and Legal Department. She also holds a BA in Classics from the University of California, Los Angeles and is currently an editorial intern at The Economist in New York. She understands basic Farsi and is currently studying Egyptian Arabic.