Obama, Iran and Alice in Wonderland
Here we go again. That shape-shifting entity known as “the international community” has moved once more to try and stop Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. In the process, the community shrank by two countries, Turkey and Brazil.
That is the conclusion one can draw from President Barack Obama’s statements on the U.N. Security Council’s vote on June 9 to sanction Iran for failing to halt its production of nuclear fuel. The vote, Obama said, was “an unmistakable message” by the international community and showed its united view on Iran and nuclear arms.
That doesn’t quite square with the fact that Turkey and Brazil, two increasingly important players on the world scene, voted against the 15-member council’s resolution. (Lebanon abstained). But it confirmed an apparent tendency by Western leaders to draw inspiration from Alice in Wonderland (where Iran is concerned).
They echo Humpty Dumpty’s famous assertion on the use of words: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” The modern, Iran-related version: “When I talk about the international community, I mean those who are with me. Neither more nor less.”
The June 9 resolution vote was the fourth on sanctions and the first with “no” votes. In 2006 and 2007 sanctions resolutions passed unanimously. In 2008, one council member, Indonesia, abstained.
Obama termed the new sanctions the most comprehensive the Iranian government had faced but said they did not close the door to diplomacy. If that were to happen, he would serve the cause of international diplomacy by setting an example and burying the over-used and empty phrase “international community” with its misleading implication of global consensus.
The question now is whether the latest set of sanctions will have any more effect on the Iranian nuclear programme than the preceding ones and even Obama expressed doubts: “We know that the Iranian government will not change its behaviour overnight.”
If history is a guide, not overnight and perhaps not ever. According to a landmark study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics first published in 1983 and updated twice, the last time in 2007, economic sanctions through history have much more often failed than succeeded.
The authors of the study, led by Gary Hufbauer, looked at 174 sanctions efforts beginning in World War I and found that only 30 percent succeeded in changing the targeted country’s policy in a major way. Autocratic regimes were particularly resistant to sanctions, the study found.
“In Iran, you have a highly autocratic regime with a very effective secret police,” Hufbauer, one of the world’s leading authorities on sanctions, said in an interview.
That means a government that can crush internal dissent, as it did after hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets after presidential elections a year ago (June 12) in protest against what they said were elections stolen by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad through massive fraud. Brutal government repression ended months of tumultuous unrest.
The 2007 edition of the Peterson Institute’s study, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, found that turning the sanctions screw rather than using a hammer is not the most effective method. Turning the screw is what the U.S. and its allies have been doing after Iran’s until-then secret nuclear projects at Natanz and Arak came to light in 2002, courtesy of an Iranian resistance group.
“Political leaders value an incremental approach toward deploying sanctions to avoid immediate confrontation and to justify the subsequent use of force, if all fails. Our analysis continues to stress the opposite. There is a better chance to avoid military escalation if sanctions are deployed with maximum impact,” the study says in reference to the confrontation with Iran.
The latest package of sanctions falls short of maximum impact, largely because Russia and China managed to water down the June 9 resolution, the result of five months of negotiations between them and the United States, Britain and France. As it stands, the compromise sanctions spare Iran’s all-important oil and gasoline imports and barely touch the financial system.
According to Hufbauer, an observation by the Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke is as valid today as it was when he made it in the 19th century: “A coalition is excellent as long as all interests of each member are the same. But in all coalitions the interests of the allies coincide only up to a certain point. As soon as one of the allies has to make sacrifices for the attainment of a large common objective, one cannot usually count on the coalition’s efficacy.”
That applies to the 12 security council members who voted for the sanctions. It applies even more to the chimerical “international community” evoked by Barack Obama.