Friday, January 22, 2010

 
My colleague Jeremy has a great post about the range of options available to Washington in dealing with the nuclear problem in Tehran.  I agree with him that a military strike is an undesirable option.  It is unlikely to succeed, and could be counter-productive by persuading the Iranians that it is in their vital national interest to go nuclear.  I also agree with him that the Iranian economy is terribly vulnerable, especially to gasoline sanctions.  The Obama Administration seems to share his enthusiasm for sanctions.  Secretary Clinton recently came out in support of "targeted sanctions," which would attempt to punish the decision-makers in Iran, such as the Revolutionary Guard, but not harm the average Iranian.  However, this approach is not without risks.

Firstly, an effective sanctions regime requires cooperation from the entire international community.  If sanctions are to target gasoline, then oil-producing and refining nations are the key participants - without their support, any sanctions effort would fail.  Saudi Arabia would most likely help any effort to stymie their Iranian nemesis, but other oil-producing states, such as Venezuela, may not be so forthcoming.  The major question marks, as always, are Russia and China.  If they can be persuaded to accede, sanctions stand a chance of squeezing Tehran.  But if they, or large MNC's based in their territories, don't buy in, sanctions will be ineffective.

Secondly, economic sanctions against Iran are a risky gambit with the potential for severe blowback.  The Iranian regime is internally isolated and faces a strong and growing opposition.  Most reports speculate that the faltering economy is a key issue for the opposition movement and a significant source of dissatisfaction.  The majority of the populace faults the government, not the international community, for their economic difficulties.  This is notable because the trump card that the Iranian regime has often played in the past is to blame everything on "The Great Satan."  By shifting responsibility for any and all woes that everyday Iranians face to the United States, the government has been able to shore up their domestic credentials and remain in power. 

That tactic is currently failing.  The Iranian government has been unable to convince the populace that America is behind their problems, and as a result the opposition movement continues to gather strength.  Economic sanctions could reverse this trend, and enable the regime to shift blame onto the international community.  While "targeted" sanctions solve this problem in theory, in practice it is difficult if not impossible to limit the pernicious effects of sanctions to a select few.  Furthermore, the key is not who is actually affected by sanctions - it is who thinks they are being affected.  The current dynamic faults the Iranian government, but it is a fragile consensus.  Public opinion is notoriously fickle, and the mere existence of a publicized sanctions program could be enough to tilt the balance of blame onto the international community.

I don't mean to suggest that sanctions should be taken off the table.  In a problematic situation, sometimes the least-bad option is the best.  But any move towards sanctions must acknowledge and address these concerns or risk failure.

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