Two points are vital to understanding the sanctions being imposed on Iran: They are unlikely to succeed — if success is defined as stopping the regime’s rulers from developing nuclear weapons — yet they are an essential component of any serious and strategic policy mix. Let us count the ways.
1. The alternative to sanctions would be doing business as usual — while representatives of Iranian commercial enterprises trot around the globe buying, selling, and trading even as Iran’s supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps sponsor terrorism, threaten genocide, plot terrorism, and brutally persecute domestic dissidents, Christians, Baha’is and gays. That should be seen as unacceptable — politically, economically, diplomatically, and morally.
2. The ongoing debate over sanctions usefully focuses public attention on the fact that Iran is ruled by a uniquely dangerous and oppressive regime. Why are people apt to forget that? Because the regime’s apologists are sophisticated, skilled, and well-funded. And because too many journalists based in or visiting Iran are either credulous or craven. I still recall the interview I heard some years back with an American public-television producer just returned from an assignment in Tehran. He had visited a mosque that, he said, reminded him of “Lutherans worshipping in the Midwest.” He did notice that “Death to Israel!” was scrawled along one of the walls of the house of worship. But his “guide” told him, “That’s just the way we Iranians talk. Like if we’re stuck in traffic, we say: ‘Death to traffic!’” The producer found that plausible and helpful.
3. Sanctions are debilitating Iran’s economy — causing hyperinflation, unemployment, steep currency devaluations, and capital flight. Do most Iranians understand that they are being made to suffer in order to realize the imperial dreams of rulers who deny them basic freedoms, squander the country’s oil wealth, and blatantly falsify election results? It’s hard to say; I very much doubt that Iranians answer pollsters’ questions candidly. But if the average Iranian doesn’t understand who is to blame, then Voice of America and other U.S. government media are wasting taxpayers’ money. President Obama also should be speaking over the regime’s head, directly to the Iranian people.
4. In London this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “simply unacceptable” for Iran’s current rulers to obtain nuclear weapons. President Obama has said repeatedly that “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option he is considering. But most Democrats and Republicans agree that the military option must be the last resort. So what options remain? As my colleagues Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz recently wrote, sanctions are “the only nonmilitary means of coercing a regime in Tehran that will break any agreement and evade all kinds of inspections.”
The fact is that we are still a long way from waging serious economic warfare against the Iranian regime. We are not yet implementing commercial and financial embargos with exceptions for humanitarian needs only.
The U.S. Congress is now considering ratcheting up the economic pressure — perhaps enough to cause the Iranian rial to collapse within 18 months. That would be the point at which Iran’s rulers would have to decide whether their nuclear ambitions are more likely to increase their power or jeopardize it. I am not confident they will make a wise choice. That also could be the point at which protesters take to the streets again, shouting, as they did in 2009, “Death to the dictators!” — whom I suspect they regard as considerably more onerous than rush-hour traffic. It’s a shame we have not been assisting Iranian dissidents all along. A new revolution against the Islamic revolution is not something we can count on, but it’s more likely to happen when the economy is crumbling than when the kabobs are cheap and plentiful.
5. Sanctions may be most useful after a strike against Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities. At that point, American and other Western diplomats will need all the leverage they can get. Their job will be to insist that Iran’s rulers verifiably end the nuclear-weapons program, halt terrorism sponsorship, and ease domestic oppression. In return: no further damage and the sanctions lifted. If such an agreement can be reached, the conflict will be over, cooperation can begin, and the people of Iran will soon be more free and prosperous, while Iran’s neighbors will sleep more soundly. If such an agreement cannot be reached, continuing and even tightening sanctions will make it more difficult for Iran to replace facilities destroyed after a military option has been exercised.
6. Those who rule Iran are ambitious, hateful, and ruthless — but they are not stupid. They recognize and respect strength. They smell weakness and comprehend the strategic opportunity open to them when their enemies vacillate. Which creates this paradox: If sanctions pressures increase and if there is a credible threat of military force behind them, a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the nuclear standoff becomes a possibility. By contrast, irresolution and attempts at appeasement can only enhance the likelihood of conflict by emboldening those who believe they are waging a divinely endorsed war against America and the West.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.