Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Utility of Iranian Sanctions

A reader, Mike, in my Death of Linkage, Andrew Sullivan Sobs post, picks up on a quick point I made towards the end:
Sanctions, carrots, incentives… all that matters in the end is whether Obama pulls the trigger, and everyone knows it, including the Iranians. I don’t think he’ll do it, and I think you don’t think he’ll do it either. So then why punish 80 million Iranians with increasingly crippling sanctions, when the policy of this government - of the entire international community - is a farce? When did the Obama Administration make the wrong choice between starving Iranian children and destroying Iranian nukes? Has Iran become the world's largest open air prison yet? I'm just asking.
He offers a reasonable estimate of the Obama Administration's policy:
The thinking of the Obama administration goes like this: Sanctions that act against Iran's populace will bring the country down from the inside, whereas a military attack could unify the country behind its current leadership.
We need to consider whether a sanctions regime, no matter how draconian, has ever prevented, or could ever prevent, a country of 80 million people with advanced research institutions from going nuclear if it really wants to. If North Korea can do it, Iran can do it, and is doing it. National impoverishment is a price worth paying for a regime intent on surviving any conceivable foreign military challenge to its rule, which is precisely what nuclear weapons permit.

Frankly, I'm not familiar with a single case where sanctions alone, without a credible threat of military action, proved effective in radically changing the behavior of a regime - which is what an Iranian decision to end nuclear weapons development would be, a radical departure from longstanding policy. Maybe someone can provide an example. Even in the case of Gaza, where a landlocked population was being deprived of everything short of necessities, and is being denied less so now, no substantive popular pressure has built up against Hamas. This is the nature of closed societies. The Soviet Union was willing to accept a very basic standard of living in exchange for a well respected space program and massive military. After a period of time, with liberal use of regime security and internal intelligence forces, the population accepts its fate.

I think the approach should be the exact opposite. The United States should destroy Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities and then immediately eliminate all trading restrictions and international sanctions on the country, perhaps in reverse order to make the bombing campaign all the more stunning. This way, the livelihood of Iranians is disentangled from the nuclear program, demonstrating that the international community is not coordinating collective punishment against their nation. The US should then make it a matter of policy that Iran will never obtain a breakout capacity, and publicly charge the US military with devising whatever weapons are necessary to achieve this end. When the Iranian government and people understand that they will never posses a nuclear warhead, ever, their behavior may become more constructive, and on a time-line that sanctions will never match.

The point I was trying to make, however, is not merely that sanctions are ineffective, but that without a credible military threat they're quite literally a farce. The international community, with the United States at its fulcrum, has publicly committed itself to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The sanctions being imposed now will not achieve that goal, but are designed to pacify public concerns (i.e. show people that we're doing something) without addressing the problem in any substantive way. By pretending to be doing something, thus lowering public apprehension and thereby support for robust military action, the sanctions regime works for Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon, not for the international community's efforts to abort this outcome.

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