Deep Sanctions on Iran are Repeating the Deadly Mistakes of Iraq (Hindawi)

Coralie Pison Hindawi writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion (a war unleashed following twelve years of the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever adopted by the UN Security Council), it is particularly ironic to read the numerous reports documenting the worrying impact sanctions are currently having on the Iranian economy and population. Some of us who followed the debate on the use of sanctions in the 1990s thought that the heavy price paid by the Iraqis at the time, particularly by the most vulnerable of them, had at least had the benefit of raising awareness on the dangers of wide-ranging economic sanctions. By March 1998, and according to the most conservative assessments, in Iraq above 200 000 children under 5 had died as a result of the sanctions. This indeed showed unmistakably that economic coercion could, in some instances, prove even more destructive than military force. In the late 1990s, the struggle within the UN Security Council to end the sanctions was nourished by numerous initiatives promoted by Western states to develop tools to assess the humanitarian impact of sanctions better.

In one of the strange twists of fate with which international politics are replete, the very same states are now increasing the economic pressure on Iran, unilaterally adopting measures that go well beyond the UN Security Council’s sets of sanctions and are now seriously harming the Iranian population. US President Barack Obama proudly declared a couple of months ago that Iran is now facing the ‘toughest sanctions in history’ – and as we speak, they have become even tougher. Meanwhile, analysts comparing polls over the years stress how, it seems, the Iranian population’s support for the nuclear program has been progressively shrinking, suggesting it is only a matter of time until the cost of the program either leads the Iranian decision-makers to bend or the Iranian people to turn against the regime.

Of course, these are the traditional arguments upon which coercive economic measures are based. Of course, it is obvious that these measures have so far led to the opposite result in the Iranian case, pushing the regime to move forward with its nuclear activities. But, as the theory goes, it is because the cost has only been increased recently and will increase further. If sanctions are allowed ‘to bite’ for long enough – which they no doubt will – the desired outcome may be achieved. That such a belief is refuted by existing scholarship on sanctions should not preoccupy us excessively as, I would like to argue, there is an even more fundamental problem.

Sanctions are designed to compel Iran to do something it would otherwise not do. But what is that? Essentially, Iran is being pressured to:

– Comply with existing UNSC resolutions that asked the country to stop a wide range of nuclear activities, among which is uranium enrichment.

– Ratify the Additional Protocol that grants the International Atomic Energy Agency (AIEA) the right to conduct inspections beyond the declared sites, enabling the international agency to verify that Iran is not conducting undisclosed –and prohibited – activities.

– Cooperate fully with the IAEA in order to allow it to get an accurate and complete picture of past Iranian nuclear activities.


A quick reminder may be needed for some at this stage: the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime regulates the use and transfer of nuclear technology, and it divides the world into two broad categories: the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) (an exclusive club that only accepts states that got their nuclear weapons before the treaty was adopted in the late 1960s and which therefore comprises the 5 permanent members of the Security Council) and the Non Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) (all other states party to the NPT treaty). What is often presented as the big bargain of the NPT is that the NNWS commit not to seek nuclear weapons and the NWS not to share the nuclear military technology in exchange for a commitment by the latter to:

– help NNWS benefit from the civil use of military technology on a non discriminatory basis (which is considered a right) and

– (as the treaty says) ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament …’, which, as the International Court of Justice has since clarified, ‘is an obligation to achieve a precise result – nuclear disarmament in all its aspects …’.[i]

Beyond the difficulty of getting the nuclear weapon states to engage seriously in disarmament, the other major ambiguity of the legal regime is the fact that it facilitates the spread of nuclear technology for civil purposes while aiming to avoid its military use. Given that the techniques and equipment used for the former are easily converted into a military program, one understands how tricky the NPT bargain actually is. For example, while uranium enrichment, if practiced long enough, can provide a state with enough fissile material suited for a bomb, it is at the same time a technique that is needed to produce low enriched uranium used in nuclear power reactors.

Within that challenging framework, the IAEA is the international, supposedly neutral, body that is charged both with helping states exploiting nuclear technology for civil purposes and checking that they are not engaging in military activities. Given that the whole regime is, as almost all international rules are, based upon state consent, the IAEA’s ability to access a state’s nuclear facilities and guarantee the absence of prohibited activities depends upon the type of safeguard agreement that this state ratified. While the Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement (designed in the 1970s) allows the IAEA to inspect only the sites and materials declared by the state, the strengthened safeguard system, that was introduced in the mid 1990s with the so-called Additional Protocol, grants the IAEA more rights and also enables the agency to access undeclared facilities, thereby reducing the risk of undisclosed military programs running in parallel to declared civil activities (as happened in the case of Iraq during the 1980s).


But let us go back to the Iranian case:

Iran, being a NNWS, has committed not to seek or develop nuclear weapons. Being party to the NPT, the IAEA Statute and the Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement, Iran has to keep records and inform the IAEA of its nuclear activities (be they related to nuclear materials, facilities or research).

The current crisis started in 2002, when an opposition group disclosed that Iran had undeclared nuclear facilities and that it had imported fissile material without informing the IAEA. These revelations, as well as additional aspects of the Iranian nuclear program that had previously been concealed and that Iran later acknowledged, showed that Iran has breached its obligations under the safeguard agreement. This raised concerns that it may have been involved in military research (a breach of its NPT obligations), which is why the IAEA started asking for full cooperation in order to gain a complete understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and to restore confidence.

By the Fall 2003, Iran declared having adopted a policy of full disclosure and, following an agreement with France, Germany and the UK, decided to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities, as well as to sign the Additional Protocol and start applying it in advance of its ratification.[ii] These measures were portrayed by all parties involved as designed to restore confidence, pending the resolution of the outstanding issues related to Iran’s past activities. In the following months, the IAEA acknowledged good progress in its understanding of the Iranian program. By mid 2004, the list of unexplained questions had shortened and there seemed to be two main issues outstanding that the IAEA wanted to clarify: the origin of high and low-enriched uranium contamination found in some nuclear facilities, as well as Iran’s efforts to import, manufacture and use P1 and P2 centrifuges.[iii] Reading the IAEA reports at the time, the resolution of these issues was presented as ‘of key importance to the Agency’s ability to provide the international community with the required assurances about Iran’s nuclear activities’.[iv] This gave the impression that the resolution of these issues would lead to the closure of the file.

Interestingly, though, and we are gradually approaching the core of the problem, what triggered the IAEA Board of Governors to loose patience in September 2005, declare that Iran was in ‘non-compliance’ with its safeguard agreement (while it was clear by mid-2003 that Iran had breached the agreement, but had worked since with the IAEA to make up for that) and refer the matter to the UN Security Council – thereby letting Iran fall into the Chapter VII trap – was not a new disclosure about concealed actions, but the fact that Iran had restarted its enrichment and reprocessing activities.

There is an irony here, and it is one that had also appeared in the Iraqi case a decade before: it is the fact that, in spite of the cooperation displayed by the Iranians from late 2003 until 2005, the pressure on that state was not decreased, but progressively increased. The fact that several times, increased cooperation actually led to harsher resolutions or, for the post-2005 period, further sanctions.[v] The fact that almost each time one file has been closed by the IAEA, new issues have been raised, based upon new intelligence made available by third states to the agency. While it has now become a cliché, it is difficult not to think of the Iraqi case, in which a very coercive disarmament process went on for twelve years, growing increasingly confrontational and ultimately providing the best justification for the invasion of the country, whereas nobody can now refute that the vast majority of the Iraqi WMD and programs had been destroyed or dismantled at the latest by the mid-1990s.

This major paradox in the case of Iraq can neither be explained by the so-called failure of US intelligence, nor by the various motives of the Bush administration to launch an unnecessary war (since the crisis related to the Iraqi WMDs started and unfolded long before G. W. Bush became president). The thing is simply that the Iraqi disarmament file was never closed in spite of the fact that there were no weapons left because such coercive, Chapter VII-based, WMD arms control processes have the potential never to be closed.

Looking at the Iranian nuclear crisis today, the issue has really very little to do with how high the cost inflicted by the sanctions on Iran must be to force the regime to cooperate, and what the red lines are for both Iran and the ‘West’. Arguably, talks as the recent ones in Kazakhstan, offers of limited relief on sanctions, should the Iranians agree on one move or another, don’t have the potential to solve things either. The file is now on the Security Council’s desk, acting under Chapter VII, and the rationale for the Council’s involvement is the need to regain trust in the peaceful intentions of Iran’s nuclear activities. However, even in the unlikely event that the Iranians would agree to ‘cooperate fully’ with the IAEA and to refrain from pursuing some of the nuclear activities they have been involved in, it is impossible to define clearly what level of cooperation will be considered enough to end the process, what new requirements or questions may be raised, month after month, possibly year after year. There are reasons to fear, borrowing the words of former IAEA Director and Nobel Peace prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, that ‘… nothing would satisfy, short of Iran coming to the table completely undressed’.[vi] I have no doubt the Iranians involved in the process understand well that they are now in the same position as their late Iraqi foe, and that the possibility exists that under its current leadership, Iran may never be considered to have ‘fully complied’ with the Council’s demand.

While the technical and legal issues raised by the Iranian nuclear crisis are related to the ambiguities of the NPT regime and the dual nature of nuclear technology, the ad hoc and coercive approach that has been adopted so far has turned the case into a tussle. The only solution could be a grand, primarily political, bargain between Iran and the United States, possibly including, in one way or another, some of the other permanent members of the Security Council. As unlikely as such a deal may appear, even this would not be a sustainable solution to the broader fundamental questions raised by the case (How to strengthen the NPT regime? What does nuclear proliferation mean today? Shouldn’t fissile material be, worldwide, under international supervision? …).

And short of such a deal, there will be no way out of the Chapter VII trap and the Iranian population will continue to be hurt by drastic coercive economic measures adopted by some of the very states that seemed to be working so hard towards making sanctions ‘smarter’ and more ‘targeted’. Thinking that the sickening price paid by the Iraqis had, at least, taught policy-makers a lesson on the use of economic sanctions did not lessen the anger at the silent carnage of the 1990s, but it had somehow made it more bearable.



[i] Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996, ICJ Reports 1996, par. 99, p. 264.

[ii] IAEA Report, 10 November 2003, GOV/2003/75 para 8-19.

[iii] IAEA Report, 24 February 2004, GOV/2004/11 para 71-78; IAEA Report, 1 June 2004, GOV/2004/34 para 43-49.

[iv] IAEA Report, 1 June 2004, GOV/2004/34 para 48.

[v] Compare for example IAEA Report 1 June 2004 with subsequent IAEA Resolution, 18 June 2004 or IAEA Report, 1 September 2004 with IAEA Resolution, 18 September 2004.

[vi] M. ELBARADEI (2011) The Age of Deception. Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, Metropolitan Books; 11-12.

Coralie Pison Hindawi is Assistant Professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut. She is the author of ‘The Controversial Impact of WMD Coercive Arms Control on International Peace and Security: Lessons from the Iraqi and Iranian Cases’ published in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law and of a forthcoming book in French entitled Vingt ans dans l’ombre du chapitre VII (Twenty Years in the Shadow of Chapter VII), by L’Harmattan, Paris, analyzing the forms and implications of two decades of coercion against Iraq. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Responses | Print |

8 Responses

  1. It seems that harsh sanctions have a dual action, at least against a non-wholly-democratic state (I wonder whether that includes Israel).

    First, it persuades the non-democratic state to stiffen its back and resist the sanctions — rather than comply with them. Or perhaps the sanctions demanded an impossible compliance rather than a merely undesired one.

    Second, when the sanctions have failed after a long time to bring the victim regime to its knees, the imosers of the sanctions then feel morally justified to increase the sanctions or to go to war.

    What never happens is that the imposers decide that they were wrong to impose (or to increase) the sanctions.

    Israel, India, and Pakistan (and perhaps N-Korea) got off easily. Not sure about NK.

    I wonder whetehr the sanctions that BDS demands for Israel — and which the world refuses to provide — would end the occupation or result in war or something worse (worse than the sanctions, maybe something worse than war).

    • But those who claim to have The Knowledge of the Way Things Work and How The Game Is Played tell us that this is all “legal,” and “moral,” and “wise.” Who are we to gainsay them?

  2. Let’s see sanctions for what they are… economic terrorism. The whole point of sanctions is to terrorize the public to coerce them to make political decisions in line with those that the empire wants to see made (where is the FREEDOM in that?). To essentially have a devastating economic and psychological impact on the lives of the average citizen of the nation.

    This is America oppressing the people of Iran, while at the same time blaming the Iranian government for its oppression. Let’s remember during Gulf Storm, the war planners intentionally destroyed the civilian infrastructure of the country for this very reason, to have a deep and lasting psychological and economic impact on the people of Iraq from the sanctions that the empire then put on them.

    • You’re right about Iran, but if this is applied to sanctions generally, what do we do when a country is clearly engaged in aggression, like Japan was in China circa 1940? Would it have been moral to continue to do business with Japan as if nothing were happening? And note that Japan in 1940 still had an elected parliament, just as Iran does today. Voters will support leaders blindly when they face foreign retaliation, so sanctions won’t work any better than they would against a genuine totalitarian state.

      Is the problem with sanctions, or the hypocritical standards that citizens allow their leaders to use as to when to impose them? Because if it’s the former, then there’s really no good choices at all.

      • Each situation is different. In the case of Japanese aggression against China it’s as simple as giving Chinese the means to defend themselves. It has not been shown through history that politics is insane. The people running these states are not suicidal and they respond as well to threats of nuclear retaliation as anyone else does.

        The whole point of these activities is 1) energy security 2) satisfying the pro-Israeli lobby in the US. They would also like control of that oil before China gets control of it. Really there is no justification for any of this, nor was there any justification for what they did to the Iraqi people in the name of energy security. Historians will attest to this fact and will not see America in a positive light for these actions.

      • I must admit that I have become rather skeptical of sanctions, generally speaking. It seems obvious that they tend to be often used to convey the impression that one is doing something, taking a strong stand. But for all the talk about ‘targeted’ sanctions, it seems that we always fall back into coercive measures that, either don’t change much, or hurt the population.
        As I was stating, we don’t have much evidence that sanctions are efficient in bringing about the changes that they are supposed to promote. As the same time, if they are too broad, they have a negative impact on the civilian, regular population. And the humanitarian exception discourse – stressing that sanctions allow for humanitarian goods – is not convincing either, as the cases of Iraq and now Iran show very well.
        My take on that is that there is a general tendency to overestimate the ability of coercive measures to solve problems and underestimate the potential of other approaches.
        Against that background, what is particularly worrying (and this is the point I have been trying to make here, and I make in greater detail in the academic article I published on the topic) is that we are dealing with processes that have no exit doors.

  3. One can only add a few points to this excellent article:

    The first point is that Iranian nuclear program that had started under the Shah with US encouragement was stopped after the revolution. When in the early 90s President Hashemi-Rafsanjani decided to restart the program for which Iran had paid billions of dollars before the revolution, he openly turned to the West to help him complete Bushehr nuclear reactor for which Iran had paid eight billion Deutsch Mark to a German company and was nearly 90 per cent complete when the revolution broke out. However, all Western countries, despite having signed agreements with Iran in the past, refused to cooperate. The initial US policy towards Iran was firstly no nuclear reactors; secondly, no fuel for any possible reactors that Iran might build; and thirdly, certainly no uranium enrichment program. Consequently, Iran was forced to turn to third countries and to restart her program in a clandestine fashion.

    The second point is that many points of contention with the IAEA had been resolved on the basis of “modalities” and the IAEA was ready to give Iran a clean bill of health when the West suddenly brought up the issue of a laptop that had allegedly fallen into the hands of Western intelligence officials and which contained some information about a possible weaponization program in the past. Mr ElBradei had the issue investigated and declared it a forgery, and Iran has never been allowed to see the document. The IAEA Board of Governors was reluctant to send Iran’s file to the Security Council, but as the result of intense US pressure and nuclear deal with India they managed to get enough votes to refer Iran to the Security Council. Whatever one may say about Iranian violations of the NPT, none of it was certainly strong enough to justify the use of the sanctions under Chapter Seven. That was a clear misuse of Security Council powers. This has been the main stumbling block in Almaty 2 negotiations. They make demands from Iran in return for minor concessions, but they never declare what the end game is going to be and whether Iran will be able to continue with enrichment. This is why Iran has made two major demands, putting all those demands in a general framework, so that they may know what the ultimate outcome would be; and secondly at least if Iran makes some major concessions the West should also make equal concessions in return, so that they do not give up all their bargaining points in return for minor concessions that might be withdrawn later.

    The third point is that the Iranians have said that they are prepared to join and ratify the Additional Protocol, stop enrichment at 20 per cent, and allow much more intrusive inspection even beyond the requirements of the Additional Protocol in return for the 5+1 formally recognizing Iran’s right to enrichment in keeping with the NPT regulations.

    The fourth point is that even if one can somehow get round the Security Council resolutions, and even if the Obama Administration decides to reach a deal with Iran, the growing number of resolutions passed by the Congress imposing unilateral sanctions have actually tied the president’s hand. So there is no way that the conflict can be resolved even if Iran surrenders.

    It is clear that Iran’s nuclear program is used for purposes other than for preventing proliferation. This policy is dishonest, misguided, and dangerous. In addition to paving the way for an eventual war, such a policy makes it even harder to deal with the real proliferators, such as North Korea, because it goes well beyond the requirements of the IAEA and the NPT.

  4. “….economic coercion…….could prove more destructive than military force..”

    The 200,000 deaths of Iraqi children under the age of five is a good example of the brunt of suffering falls not upon the perpetrators whom the sanctions are meant to deter, but upon innocents individuals who have little or no control over the offending conduct.

    Same situation has happened in Gaza. Gaza, according to one study, has the world’s lowest per capita GDP other than
    the Republic of Zambia. A significant percentage of Gazan children suffer from malnourishment and other medical problems due to the Israeli embargo. The Gazan economy is ravaged by denial of fishing rights, bombings of banks, airport facilities, demolition of orchards, farms and other acts of destruction by the Israel Defense Forces. This embargo has done little to stop the violence but has reinforced support for the most extreme elements in Gaza.

    I do not think that the Iranian people appreciate the imposition of sanctions any more than they liked U.S.-trained SAVAK agents in the 1960s and 70s torturing dissidents. The backlash will manifested via anti-Americanism sentiment and protests against America within Iran.

Comments are closed.