Thursday, 30th August 2012

Sanctions target Tehran, but it is West that is losing goodwill

When devastating earthquakes hit Iran’s north-east on 11 August, questions were raised about the impact of sanctions on the rescue of survivors. “Helicopters had to suspend rescue operations during the night as Iran — under international sanctions over its nuclear programme — is barred from purchasing night-vision material,” the New York Times wrote on 12 August. Several Iranian charities abroad complained of the difficulty in sending aid, not least because of the reluctance of US banks to undertake transfers to Iran, even those still permitted by law. On 13 August, the US State Department issued a statement saying “our hearts go out to those people who are affected”, and that there was no need for a special licence to send food and medicine. It took until 21 August, and some lobbying, for the US Treasury to issue a general licence for 45 days to ease the transfer of all aid. “The new licence is intended only to support the Iranian people as they respond to and rebuild from this natural disaster,” the White House said, lest there be any confusion. “We remain committed to rigorously implementing the measures and sanctions in place to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime.”

It has always been clear that sanctions are aimed at the Iranian government, rather than the populace. But execution does not always deliver intent; the efficacy of sanctions has long been debated. In the case of Iran, punishment is evidently not proportional to power: massive hikes in food prices, drug shortages, banking restrictions and a plummeting currency affect average Iranians more than the elite, who can often circumvent them. Even those overtly targeted by European Union, United Nations and US sanctions have not necessarily suffered to date (see, IRGC profits from sanctions as foreign investors shy away from Iran), and while they are likely to if sanctions persist, the collateral harm to ordinary people in the interim should not be disregarded.

Sanctions are meant to be a non-violent way of pressuring an undesirable government into political change. But to achieve that change (without military intervention), there must be pressure from within: it is home support/dissent that can make/break the leadership. And more often than not, sanctions will not provoke that pressure, acting instead as a rallying cry for the nation. “Pervasive nationalism often makes states and societies willing to endure considerable punishment rather than abandon what are seen as the interests of the nation,” US political scientist Robert Pape wrote in a 1997 article for International Security entitled ‘Why economic sanctions do not work’.

In Iran, the nuclear programme is very much seen as a national one, and as the cost of sanctions rises, the West is losing goodwill. Writing in London’s Guardian newspaper in February, Azadeh Moaveni noted the growing resentment among Iranian moderates. “The West has become so involved in its political brinkmanship with the mullahs that it has lost sight of how its actions play out internally in Iran,” she wrote. “Iranians are a politically savvy people, but their willingness to hold their government accountable for the parlous state of the economy is endangered by the rising costs of sanctions.”

Sanctions are applied not because they are the best option, but because it is better domestically for politicians to be seen doing something, rather than nothing. Most historical analysis points to a high failure rate, with some estimating sanctions have been effective in less than a third of cases. It is too early to know what their long-term impact will be on Iran. Change could come – if it does – from a number of places, and retrospect may or may not give sanctions a role. Far more predictable is that fail or succeed, a human cost lies beyond the politics.

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