Iran sanctions and wishful thinking

May 7, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate
– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

So what’s so difficult in getting Iran to drop its nuclear program? All it needs is a great American leader who uses sanctions to break the Iranian economy so badly that popular discontent sweeps away the leadership. It is replaced without a shot being fired.

That simplistic solution to one of the most complex problems of the Middle East was part of a keynote speech greeted with thunderous applause by 6,000 delegates to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The speaker: Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

In the fourth month of the administration of President Barack Obama, who favors talking to America’s adversaries rather than ousting them, the Gingrich prescription sounded like a throwback to the days when neo-conservatives predicted that the U.S. troops invading Iraq would be pelted with flowers and sweets. Wishful thinking at its finest.

But in panel discussions and forums at AIPAC, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States, the idea of sharply tightened sanctions had plenty of proponents. The preferred lever: cutting off gasoline supplies to Iran, which relies on imports for around 40% of its domestic consumption.

On the final day of the conference this week, several thousand AIPAC activists converged on Congress to press their representatives for passage of pending legislation to sanction companies that sell, ship, finance or insure gasoline exports to Iran. Firms that continued dealing with Iran would be banned from doing business with the U.S.

Would an additional layer to a stack of sanctions imposed since 1995 get the Iranians to drop what the West insists is work toward a nuclear bomb? There is no reason to believe it would. There is every reason to believe more sanctions would inflict hardship on the Iranian people.

“With all the economic pain sanctions have imposed on the Iranian economy, there has not been a single instance in which that pain has translated into a desirable change in the Iranian government’s policies,” Trita Parsi, the president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, told a congressional hearing last month. “The Iranian people have suffered the brunt of the economic pressures.”


That tends to be the case with most sanctions that seek to change a government’s behavior or its ouster. A case in point closer to Washington than Tehran — Cuba. Almost five decades of U.S. economic sanctions have failed to bring down Fidel Castro or the brother who succeeded him.

Iran introduced gasoline rationing in June, 2007, a move that sparked riots in Tehran, with angry citizens setting ablaze gasoline stations. It was one of the most visible demonstrations of anger against the Iranian government since President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad took office in 2005.

But by and large, say Trita and other Iran experts, a good deal of the people’s anger over economic duress is directed against the United States, more so because the nuclear program has become a matter of national pride. It enjoys such broad public support that no politician running for office would risk advocating its termination.

So it would be naïve to expect public Iranian concessions on the nuclear front before the June 12 presidential elections. Registration for candidates opened this week and Ahmedinejad is expected to run for another four-year term. His most serious challenger to have announced his candidacy so far is a moderate, Mirhossein Mousavi, who was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

When he campaigned for the presidency and announced he was prepared to open a dialogue with Iran, Barack Obama said he would do so without “self-defeating preconditions.” But he also spoke in favor of sanctions, including the idea of throttling gasoline supplies. Overall strategy is still a work in progress.

As far as “self-defeating preconditions” go, setting an August deadline for Iran to curb its nuclear program, as did Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this week, must surely rank at the top of the list. It’s an either-or proposition which makes a mockery of the word diplomacy.

It remains to be seen whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on that timeline when he meets Obama in Washington on May 18. So far, they don’t seem to be of one mind on Iran, an absolute priority for Netanyahu, part of intertwined Middle East problems (including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) for Obama and his team.

Robert Satloff, head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israeli think tank, put it in stark terms at an AIPAC panel discussion when speakers were asked to predict the state of U.S.-Israeli relations in a year’s time: “I fear that if we and the Israelis are not totally on the same page from A to Z on this issue…next year we may be dealing with the most serious face-to-face disagreement in the 61 years of this relationship.”

Next year, if not before.


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Israel has been going through hoops to secretly buy oil from Iran while simultaneously claiming that Iran plans a nuclear Holocaust against Israel, not to mention lobbying heavily for sanctions against Iran until the Americans fight another war for them and ironically nuke the Iranians for the crime of allegedly thinking about possibly starting a program to potentially build something that could someday, in the far distant future, perhaps, be used to defend itself against Israel, while Israel sits on the only – and completely illegal- stockpile of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. As we all know, there are two kinds of International Law, the one that applies to Israel, and the one that applies to everybody else.

Posted by getplaning | Report as abusive

Well another thing that the new administration is not big on is what does work or what to do if talk fails. Then again no one in the media seems to want to follow up on these things. They say he has closed Gitmo, but as far as I know it’s still operating and there is no plan to actually close it, just good intentions and we all know where those lead.
Please oh enlightened folk who say sanctions don’t work, what does?

Posted by Edward M. Blake | Report as abusive

Please oh enlightened folk who say sanctions don’t work, what does?…” – Posted by Edward M. Blake


Brute force. Or a credible threat of using it.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

A refreshing insight from Getplaning. I’m glad to also see that Reuters has dared publish something that could easily be tagged as anti-semitic along with anything else that is even midly critical of Israel’s domestic and foreign policy

Its nice to see that their blatant hypocrisy catches some people’s attention.

There is nothing wrong with having powerful friends like the US and no one can blame them as they are a sheep surrounded by wolves in the Middle East. But to say that they are opportunistic would be a gross understatement.

Hopefully Obama can keep is cool and not be coerces into making any rash decisions due to pressure from the Jewish Lobby. Let it be known that I do understand the plight of Israel against certain aggresors, but I also see it how it is as a wider push to consolidate their holding over the region.

The great unspoken truth is that Israel have never had any intention of dealing honorably with the Palestinians, and this has become obvious to the likes of Iran. While Israel can point to a Palestinian threat, they can keep on stealing Palestinian land, and establishing ‘facts on the ground’. And this is funded directly and indirectly by America. Essentially, Israel is an undeclared state of America, kept afloat be the USA. So why should the Iranians believe a word of what Israel or America says, faced with such belligerent hypocrisy. So there is very little hope that Iran will voluntarily stop development of nuclear weapons. And if provoked they will use them. The problem has never been Iran, it has always been Israel.

Posted by steve | Report as abusive

Then again no one in the media seems to want to follow up on these things. They say he has closed Gitmo, but as far as I know it’s still operating and there is no plan to actually close it, just good intentions and we all know where those lead.

It seems pretty likely that no one in government believes sanctions will cause Iran to terminate their nuclear program. But that is not the same thing as saying that sanctions will not have any effect on Iran’s behavior. Any country subject to sanctions will experience what economists call effects at the margin; that is, some choices (perhaps not directly related to a program that is the target of the sanctions) will be made differently because of the sanctions. For example, if a country subject to sanctions is compelled to make certain transactions on the black market instead of on the open market, its costs will increase and its ability to undertake projects requiring such transactions will be limited. Over time, such limitations at the margin can be expected to have a substantial cumulative effect. The marginal effects of sanctions are unlikely themselves to cause Iran to terminate its nuclear development program; however, the marginal effects of sanctions may limit Iran’s options overall, including options with respect to the nuclear development program. And those limitations may impede Iran’s ability to conduct its nuclear development program. I would expect that this is the sort of thing that is in the minds of policy makers who advocate sanctions and that they do not expect Iran instantly to capitulate because of sanctions.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

When I first visited Iran some 18 months ago, I was struck by the love and respect that many of the Iranians I met had for America. I was surprised, too, how many of them spoke American English having studied in the states during the years of the last Shah of Iran. At the rise of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, many of them returned home to Iran. Most of those I spoke with said that
Israel was more likely to attack
their country first before America over the issue of a
possible nuclearised Shia state. Their anti-Israel feeling was palpable, while their feeling for America was more complex and more awe-inspiring to them, despite their ugly feeling specifically toward the then
Bush Administration. Sanctions have obviously hurt the Iranian people, but such has not stopped them from going about their daily business with a pride and defiance against such. As for President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, I heard hardly a word spoken about him, either for or against him, during my ten-day visit to Tehran and elsewhere in Persia. One would almost think he didn’t exist! Whatever, my own personal feeling is that both Israel and the United States suffer from what I call “Iranophobia” that instills their reactions and views on Iran beyond the point of trying to engage the Iranians in some kind of positive intercourse rather than with more sanctions and threats. Perhaps Barack Obama is the key to such a future and positive dialogue
with Tehran? Although, Israel’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not give way to Washington no matter what Obama may do or say other than perhaps getting the US to back any future military retaliation
against Iran. Such would be absolutely fatal to all concerned and would leave the Middle East in a greater political mess than it already is. Worse still, it would put Iran on a out and out war footing against all things to do with Israel and the world jewry. In the end, the Shia Nation would feel forced to then become a nuclear state one day out of the war ashes inflicted upon it by Israel and/or the United States. Without dialogue, only death awaits. Truly, Alex Albion. London, UK.

All the AIPAC members should be expelled to their promised land and live America and American tax payers alone. They have no loyalty to America and they are an agent of Israel. America should stop supporting Israel in return for friendship of more than billions of world populations across the globe. Israel is a danger to world peace and stability and must be denuclearized before it commits an stupid act.

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

CIA’s own Dennis Blair testified to the Senate Foreign Affairs Cttee in Feb 09 that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme and has not made the political decision to have one, so the fear-mongering that grips America and Europe must have other reasons. Is it to appease some single-issue lobby groups? What will AIPAC and Anti-Defamation League talk about if the Iranian ‘threat’ did not exist? Like all organisations they need a reason for existing, shame their reasons are malignant AND bad for US interests. It is time they were shunned by the US body politik.

Posted by Raad | Report as abusive

Isn’t the best solution for all nations, including Israel, to destroy their nuclear arsenals.

Otherwise it will always be a case of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Posted by Mr. McTague | Report as abusive

Your very thought proving article is saying past and present US govts. have allowed the pro-Israeli lobby to make decisions and present them as US policy.
What the current administration, congress and senate have to decide if this is to continue. If so, are the people of the USA prepared to pay whatever price comes from these decisions, especially in the light of the current world situation when various power balances among nations regarding their influence, finance and economics are altering rapidly.

Posted by Varo Dharmarajah | Report as abusive

The notion of disarmament and leaving Iran alone is straight our of fantasy books and ignores the ideas of Darwinian natural selection.

The world is faced with Islamofascism, a notion so dangerous that it must be destroyed in every shape and form.

Imagine if people in the late 30′s believed that Hitler needs to be left alone or that he needs to disarm (in fact people made the same claims).

The West has been under attack and it must flex its muscules and destroy any traces of Islamofascism as soon as possible.

Attaching moral equivalence to the cause of Israel/West and the savagery that exists in the middle east is extremely dangerous and trivializes the complex nature of the mess in the middle east. For peace to flourish in the middle east, Islam must secularize and nation states that embrace Islam must democratize and embrace capitalism. Israel is a country that embraces individulism (although it is very much socialistic).

Posted by Massud Ghaussy | Report as abusive

As always, the U.S. has to put aside what is best for the world when it comes to the Apartheid State of Israel. Iran always wanted to be democratic like the United States, but we squandered that chance by incubating a coup and putting back the Shah in the late 50′s. We paid the price in the 70′s and still till today. The only solution that is best for us is direct talks with Iran, if done correctly with the right pace, Iran can a great friend and ally in the M.E.

Posted by guest | Report as abusive

May 7th, 2009 12:45 pm GMT – Posted by Anonymous . .what a load of cr&a&p! Be scared, very scared is all you hawks have to say .. give it a rest already. I am more worried about China but I am sure you are more worried about profits!

Posted by flyingeagel | Report as abusive

National Geographic, October, 2002, clearly, and impartially, lays out the brazen Israeli policies to confiscate Palestinian property, deny them the opportunity to earn a living and create a ring of settlements that would make it impossible for any future Israeli administration to share the territory. These were all tactics used as part of the Czarist pogroms.

Israel is a big disappointment compared to its promises during the 1950s pretty much the same as the United States is a big disappointment compared to the promises of the 1950s.

Let’s have the Iranians and Israelis sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. Then let’s insist on a two-state solution, just as the U.N. originally proposed in 1948 when Israel was formed. Then let’s designate AIPAC as a terrorist organization. No doubt that’s how the Iranians and other Arab states see them. Kind of like, “Yo, kid, stop bullying the neighbors or you’re going to spend a lot of time in your room.”

Posted by jumper_SC | Report as abusive

Iranian president’s statements on Isreal being wiped out
are sufficient to proceed bombing of Iran

Posted by jjmk4546 | Report as abusive

I thought World War 2 proved that hesitation to react to a threat can cause a tiny spark to turn into a blaze the size of the continent.

Posted by Alex | Report as abusive

is there a proof that sanctions have worked in any country? Cuba?no. north korea? no. pre-invasion iraq? no. anyone else? seriously. this is utter non-sense. it will be interesting to see the impact that AIPAC has on this outcome, which most likely will go their way. all this while, 2 AIPAC lobbyists are having charges of spying on the united states for israel being dropped with no consequences. its a shame how pathethic our government officials have become.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

“Iranian president’s statements on Isreal being wiped out
are sufficient to proceed bombing of Iran”

May 7th, 2009 8:03 pm GMT – Posted by guest

A very ignorant comment. The President of Iran said no such thing. The statements of the Iranian President have been reflected by the western corporate media in a manipulated way. Iran’s President was describing the removal of the right wing regime that is in power in Israel. He never demanded the elimination or annihilation of Israel.

Posted by getplaning | Report as abusive