Politics & Policy

Are Sanctions Working?

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameinei in front of a portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini
If the purpose is to penalize Iran’s rulers for their crimes and discourage civilized people from buying blood oil, yes.

There’s pain, and then there’s pain. Getting stung by a bee hurts. Having a Doberman sink his teeth into your thigh is a more intense experience. By the same token, there are sanctions, and then there are sanctions. For years, the sanctions imposed on Iran were an irritation, a not-entirely-convincing message to the regime that one of these days. . . .  Now, however, new and tougher sanctions are being imposed on Iran — and they are beginning to bite. 

The rial has lost 50 percent of its value since December. Inflation is running over 20 percent, with some unofficial estimates pegging it at twice that amount. Iran’s rulers have forfeited more than $60 billion in energy investment and $14 billion in annual oil sales, while hundreds of billions of dollars in potential sales of Iranian natural gas have been prevented. Crude-oil production is falling, and Iran’s central bank is finding it difficult to receive payments for the oil it does export. The regime is paying more to import gasoline and has had to slash subsidies as a result, reminding Iranians that they don’t have the means to refine their own oil into gasoline — thanks to their rulers’ perverse priorities.

#ad#According to French intelligence, Iran has cut funding to Hezbollah — its terrorist foreign legion — by 25 percent. According to Reuters, Iran’s financial aid to Hamas stopped flowing in August. “We can’t pretend sanctions aren’t having an effect,” Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said recently.

And no one should pretend there isn’t justice in that. Finally, we are making the theocratic clique that rules Iran pay at least a minimal price for being the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism; for facilitating the killings of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Saudi Arabia and Beirut before that; for assassinating Iranian expatriates in Europe and plotting to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C.; for illegally developing nuclear weapons; for both inciting and threatening genocide; and for killing, raping, imprisoning, and otherwise egregiously violating the human rights of the Iranian people.

Regarding that last indictment, two examples out of hundreds that could be cited: (1) Yousef Nadarkhani is in prison and facing the death penalty. What did he do to deserve that? He converted to Christianity. (2) Iran’s Supreme Court recently confirmed the death sentence of Saeed Malekpour, an Iranian-born Canadian permanent resident. Of what was he convicted? “Crimes against Islam” and “spreading corruption on Earth.”

Decent people do not wear “blood diamonds.” Why is it more defensible to pump “blood oil” into your Volvo? A loophole in American law allows for gasoline imported into the U.S. to be made from Iranian crude. Congress can and should end this practice by making the U.S. an “Iranian-oil-free zone.” New sanctions measures, targeting Iran’s national oil company, its oil-tanker fleet, and its access to the global electronic financial system are being considered on the Hill this week.

If sanctions achieve nothing more than to make clear that civilized people do not do business as usual with tyrants and, in particular, with storm troopers — a fair description of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which owns many of the country’s major industries and businesses — they are worth the effort. 

#page#Serious penalties should have been imposed on Iran’s self-proclaimed jihadis long ago. Had that happened, the Iranian threat might not have metastasized as it has. In 1979, when the American embassy was seized and our diplomats were held hostage, free nations around the world should have withdrawn their ambassadors and sent Iran’s envoys packing. In 1983, after Iranian-instructed Hezbollah terrorists suicide-bombed the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon, the consequences should have been swift and painful. In 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the murder of a British novelist, the Islamic Republic should have been expelled from all international organizations, the overseas bank accounts of its rulers frozen, and none of its planes allowed to land in Europe. In 1996, when the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia were attacked, killing 19 American airmen, FBI investigators at least should have been permitted to connect the dots that led to Tehran.

But in each and every case the West’s responses were feckless, which — predictably  – encouraged Iran’s global revolutionaries to continue to push the envelope. “If no one is stopping us,” they must have said, “why should we stop ourselves?”

#ad#Beyond imposing a price for past and current crimes, is there anything else that sanctions can achieve? By now we know that Iran’s rulers will not negotiate in good faith and a spirit of compromise. It is possible — not probable — that strong, sustained economic pressure will force Supreme Leader Ali Khameinei to consider whether the nuclear-weapons program intended to enhance his power could end up jeopardizing it instead. More plausibly, sanctions may strengthen the regime’s opponents by giving them a chance to say truthfully to average Iranians: “See the hardship this regime brings us! After decades of failure, fraud, and broken promises, is it not time for change?” And sanctions make it much more difficult for Khamaeni to use the country’s oil wealth to extinguish the still glowing embers of revolution.

But sanctions are no panacea. They should be just one weapon in an arsenal of policies aimed at weakening Iran’s fanatical rulers immediately and dislodging them eventually. When Iranians rose up in the streets in 2009 to protest a blatantly fraudulent election, they chanted: “Obama! Are you with us or against us?” The president did not reply, presumably because he hoped Khamenei might decide to engage with him. Surely, that hope cannot still be alive. 

Obama should now speak directly to the Iranian people, telling them that Americans support their aspirations — we want them to choose their leaders in free and fair elections. We want them to live in freedom and without fear. But those who rule them today cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons — not by us and not by them. He should add: “We take no pleasure in imposing sanctions. We look forward to the day when we can trade with you and cooperate with you and help you become as prosperous as you deserve to be. But that day cannot come so long as your rulers call us Satan, scrawl ‘Death to America!’ on their missiles, and illegally develop nuclear weapons with which to threaten the world.”

Such moral support should be matched by material assistance. We can find out what regime opponents need to communicate, organize, and mobilize, and we can get it to them. Yes, the regime will accuse the dissidents of being American Zionist agents. They already say that, so what’s the difference?

Finally, there must be no ambiguity about the fact that, if all else fails, sharper arrows remain in our quiver; no ambiguity about our determination to prevent this regime — which, the evidence clearly shows, works hand in glove with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups — from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

There are conflicts, and then there are conflicts. Iran’s rulers need to understand that if they continue to escalate this conflict, sooner or later they will come to the end of the road. And there they will find not just a hive of bumblebees but the jaws of a very angry junkyard dog.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Clifford D. MayClifford D. May is an American journalist and editor. He is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute created shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ...

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