Over at Foreign Policy, Lara Friedman recommends “getting over the sanctions delusion” and predicts that the Iran Refined Petroleum Act now making its way through Congress — a set of unilateral sanctions targeted at Iran’s refined gasoline imports from across the Persian Gulf — will probably fail. Her argument is worth examining; in addition to being both novel and deeply misguided, it raises an important point.
Noting that supporters of stiffer Iran sanctions “triumphantly” raise the success of sanctions against South Africa as an example in their favor, Lara sees a crucial difference, because
South Africa is the one case where sanctions were about supporting the self-identified interests of a large portion of that country’s population. In every other case, sanctions have been about promoting US interests, not the interests of the people bearing their brunt. We sanctioned the Castro regime because we refused to tolerate Communism so close to home. We sanctioned Gaza because we rejected any dealings with Hamas. We sanctioned Iraq because we decided that Saddam Hussein had become an irredeemable enemy of the US. We started sanctioning Iran because we decided that the Iranian regime was beyond the pale. And — no surprise — in every case except South Africa, the populations that were expected to rise up and act as tools of US foreign policy obstinately refused to cooperate.
Lara is right to distinguish South Africa from these other cases, but she draws entirely the wrong distinction. Her point is a variation on “blame America first” and may be paraphrased as follows: In South Africa sanctions had a humanitarian purpose, in solidarity with the wishes of the South African people, whereas in the other cases sanctions were motivated by U.S. interests in an exercise of imperialist realpolitik.
But those who have supported sanctions against Cuba, Gaza, Iraq, and Iran were also motivated by humanitarian concerns, in many cases quite centrally and passionately. Conservatives tend to see humanitarianism and the pursuit of U.S. interests abroad — properly understood — as generally consonant aims. In Cuba, Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran (and perhaps even Gaza) people have been unable “to rise up and act as tools of US foreign policy” (i.e., liberate themselves) not because they didn’t want to, but because they were and are terrified. Actually, in Iraq, they did rise up, and they were crushed. In Cuba, hundreds of thousands decided that their chances were better if they risked probable death on inner tubes and rickety boats trying to cross the Florida Straits — arriving with stories of terror and a loathing of Castro that easily match what the victims of apartheid felt towards that regime. The people of Cuba and Iraq might well have had “self-expressed” widespread opposition to their regimes — and solidarity with U.S. policy — if their countries’ respective terror police had not been so effective in silencing them.
The difference in the case of South Africa was not in the motivations of the U.S. government, but rather in the motivations of the South African government. What South Africa had by way of a repressive apparatus came apart in the course of the 1980s, increasingly assailed and isolated by anti-apartheid forces within the government as well outside it. By the time U.S. and Europeans imposed sanctions in 1986–87, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the African National Congress was still banned; on the other hand, official apartheid had largely disappeared from most workplaces, black trade unions had been legalized, the Mixed Marriages Act had been repealed, the Separate Amenities Act soon would be, and the pass laws and forced removals of blacks had ended. As Margaret Thatcher related in Downing Street Years, “In all these ways ‘apartheid,’ as the Left continued to describe it, was if not dead at least rapidly dying.” Soon after sanctions were imposed, Mandela was released and the ANC legalized; within a few years the last white governments of South Africa had dismantled apartheid entirely and ushered in the 1994 mixed-race elections which ended white rule in South Africa forever. In the end, the sanctions proved useful mostly as a political lever within a South African regime that was in the midst of transforming itself.
By contrast, the regimes of Cuba and Saddam’s Iraq were (and in the case of Cuba, still is) unified and largely unconcerned with the isolation and poverty that their peoples have had to endure. The Cuban government for example has no interest in ending U.S. sanctions (otherwise they would be offering something in return, such as limited freedom of speech, or the release of a few political prisoners). The government’s protests against the U.S. embargo are designed only to justify the dictatorship at home and increase its standing abroad. Its political monopoly would be more endangered by an end to the country’s isolation than it ever has been by the absence of U.S. economic ties — it is the same reason that Kim Jong Il decided in the 1990s that starving several million fellow North Koreans was better than embracing the West. But if significant elements of the Cuban government were to start seeking political authority on the basis of popular legitimacy, the desire to improve the lives of their people would give Cuban officials a real interest in ending both the U.S. embargo and the repressive policies of the current regime. Communism in Eastern Europe came to an end as a result of many factors — but most primordially because the Communists themselves initiated and steered the process that ended it, as recounted in Tony Judt’s Postwar.
So, into which basket should we place Iran now? Is the regime unified and unconcerned with popular support and international isolation, thinking itself able to maintain power indefinitely on the basis of a terror police? Does the regime still believe that the Islamic Revolution can survive in the long run, with the will of Allah plus a few nukes? That is entirely possible. In that case, sanctions by themselves have little chance of working, and stronger inducements may have to be considered. But if the regime in Tehran is increasingly riven by faction, coming apart along political lines, cracking under the pressure of international ostracism, then a policy of piling up all feasible sanctions will have a chance of working. Perhaps there are elements of the Iranian elite who don’t think they can survive without popular support, who secretly want the U.S. to impose stiffer sanctions, to start cutting off gasoline imports, hoping to push the Ahmadinejad–Iranian Revolutionary Guard regime to its final end (his primary purview is the budget, with its massive gasoline subsidies). Maybe they are willing to pay a price in terms of the Iranian people suffering economic deprivation in the short run. Hillary Clinton has from time to time made comments aimed at Ahmadinejad and the IRG as distinct from the Iranian state generally, which suggests that a South Africa model may well be what the Obama administration is thinking. That would be not so much a question of isolating the Iranian government as of isolating particular factions within the government — much the direction in which Margaret Thatcher tried to steer the push for sanctions against South Africa.
Such a policy would have at least one hopeful precedent: In the heat of apartheid’s crisis, South Africa gave up an indigenously developed nuclear-weapon program and willingly joined the NPT as a non–nuclear weapons state. It did so in the midst of self-effectuated regime change in which, helped along by a U.S.-European policy of “constructive engagement” and sanctions, the government began to reflect the will of its people. If the government of South Africa had not first begun to change its attitude towards its own people, embracing a desire for international legitimacy based on domestic justice and popular support, sanctions would likely not have worked there either — whatever the will of the people or the motivations of the U.S. government.
– Mario Loyola is a former foreign policy counsel at the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.