Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Sanctions Will Not Work on Iran

Posted in Iran by Dan on November 26, 2009

A new U.N. sanctions push is irrelevant at this point in the game

With an Iranian rejection over a new U.N. proposal imminent, the Security Council will be forced to yet again mull over a workable approach towards the nuclear stalemate.  Unfortunately, the United Nations- specifically the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany- continue to lobby for the same failed policy that sped up Iran’s nuclear capability in the first place: economic sanctions.

There is no doubt that economic penalties have worked remarkably well in the past, depending on the industries being targeted and the countries being penalized.  The Libyan case in 2004 is the most contemporary example of sanction accomplishments.  Faced with a poorly managed and inefficient economy, Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi abandoned his nuclear weapons program and renounced international terrorism in exchange for an improved economic relationship with western powers.  Fearing a substantial rise in the unemployment rate- in addition to other financial damage- Kaddafi found it in his best interest to cave-in to international demands.  Absent an effective sanctions campaign, such a dramatic shift in foreign-policy may not have occurred.

In this illustration, a nuclear aspirant was deterred from taking the next step, which would have inevitably destabilized a region that was already prone to Islamic violence and civil turbulence.

Ever since Libya decided to integrate itself within the international community, advocates of the sanctions regime have used the Libyan success story to promote similar measures on untrustworthy adversaries.  They claim that a sanctions package is THE peaceful alternative to military confrontation, not to mention its resounding status as a legitimate form of retaliation.  Those that advocate this type of punishment repeatedly argue that sanctions hit a state where it hurts (the wallet), thereby forcing them to change their hostile ways.  The Obama administration has been a vocal leader in this camp for the past few months.

With the positive aroma currently surrounding economic penalties, it is unavoidable that many countries around the world- not to mention the United States in particular- are trying to force the Libyan success-story onto the Iranian problem.  President Barack Obama and his European allies have said so themselves; labeling military action on Iranian nuclear facilities as an irrational option (and they are right), the only approach left on the table is a globally-enforced campaign directed at the Iranian economy.

The problem is that these same politicians fail to recognize that three rounds of sanctions since 2006 have yet to convince Tehran to abide by nuclear norms.  In fact, they have only strengthened Iranian resolve.  Nuclear inspectors have just discovered more operational centrifuges in Iran’s main nuclear-enrichment site (Natanz), and a new nuclear plant west of Tehran was just exposed by the IAEA this past October.

Let’s face it: a new set of sanctions will not work on Iran.  Even if the Security Council were to pass a new resolution, there is no evidence that Russia and China- two countries that possess extensive economic ties with Iran- will not renege on the agreement once they experience the negative side-effects of their decision.  At a time when Russian and Chinese leaders are doing everything they can to bolster their own economies, the last thing Moscow and Beijing would want to do is cut off a profitable trade route.

In addition, sanctions towards Iran’s petroleum industry will not have huge significance if the clerical leadership can find other sources of refined gasoline.  Hugo Chavez has already declared his willingness to ship 20,000 barrels per day of refined gasoline to the Islamic Republic in the event of “Yankee-led” sabotage.  Considering the fact that Iran and Venezuela have a common enemy- the “Great Satan”- it is hard to believe that a sanctions push will succeed in everything it seeks out to accomplish.

In international relations, people have a tendency to pick up and support what is hot in the policy realm.  For the last decade, sanctions and other forms of economic punishment have been the overarching fashion-trend.  But just because a policy has a lot of supporters does not automatically make this policy effective and worthwhile.  At one time, preventive warfare was a hot policy, and one the United States prematurely approved.  Look how that turned out.

Realistically and historically speaking, sanctions are least likely to succeed against distant economic partners.  Considering that the United States and Iran hardly trade in the first place, the effects of a new western sanctions push would be far more symbolic than strategic.  By this definition, Iran will find a way to weather the storm, as they have for the past three years.

Note:  This piece is an adaptive version of a new project I am working on, which is coincidently my undergraduate thesis.  I am now entering into the tedious journey of peer review editing, a most joyful experience!

-Daniel R. DePetris

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4 Responses

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  1. JJP said, on November 27, 2009 at 7:21 am

    “…new nuclear plant west of Tehran was just exposed by the IAEA this past October.”

    Iran exposed this to the IAEA. Might want to mention somewhere that the sanctions are illegal under international law, as Iran is a signatory of the NPT.

    • Dan said, on November 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm

      While that may be true, it is important to remember that Iran only exposed the plant when western intelligence agencies were threatening to bring it to the U.N. Security Council. In fact, I firmly believe that this was Tehran’s way of “saving-face.” Imagine the international uproar if U.S, British, and German intelligence brought this to the IAEA’s attention before Iran declared the facilities existence. Russia and China would have certainly taken a more objective approach to Iran’s nuclear program. This would have been devastating for the Iranian position, considering the fact that Russia and China are the only significant powers defended Iran’s nuclear program.

      Iran’s exposure of the Qom facility was not out of the goodness of the NPT. Rather, it was a strategic political move designed to prevent further condemnation from world powers, including Moscow and Beijing.

      >

    • Dan said, on November 27, 2009 at 11:00 pm

      Thanks for your comment JJP!!! spread the word!!

  2. Dan said, on November 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    While that may be true, it is important to remember that Iran only exposed the plant when western intelligence agencies were threatening to bring it to the U.N. Security Council. In fact, I firmly believe that this was Tehran’s way of “saving-face.” Imagine the international uproar if U.S, British, and German intelligence brought this to the IAEA’s attention before Iran declared the facilities existence. Russia and China would have certainly taken a more objective approach to Iran’s nuclear program. This would have been devastating for the Iranian position, considering the fact that Russia and China are the only significant powers defended Iran’s nuclear program.

    Iran’s exposure of the Qom facility was not out of the goodness of the NPT. Rather, it was a strategic political move designed to prevent further condemnation from world powers, including Moscow and Beijing.


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