Sunday, June 20, 2010

The drumbeat of support for harsh sanctions against Iran continues, this time in a featured article from

Sanctions helped South Africa's pro-democracy movement. They can do the same in Iran.
Really?  They did?  Because I seem to recall that the sanctions against South Africa were economically pathetic and insignificant.  They had value as a message from the international community, but the meat of the sanctions did little.  In fact, the ban on arms trade with South Africa, one of the core components of the sanctions regime (along with oil), had the perverse effect of transforming South Africa into one of the largest and most sophisticated arms manufacturers in the world (see Crawford and Klotz for details).

And oil, the second primary focus of the sanctions regime, continued to flow freely.  Smuggling was rampant, and many states chose to defy the will of the international community to exploit a lucrative market.  Ironically, Iran was the main player to do so (see Klinghoffer for more).  In short, the international embargoes on goods had little effect on the apartheid regime, and certainly did not "marginalize and undermine the government" as

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a filmmaker, to substantiate this claim.  Unfortunately, all other supporting claims are from "a growing number of key opinion-makers and activists in the green movement," "other Iranian dissidents and activists," and "Iranian experts and analysts" - an impressive list of anonymous sources.  I understand that personal security is a factor (nobody wants a knock on the door from the basij), but constructing an entire argument on nameless sources is poor analysis, especially when you factor in their dismissal of Mir Hossein Mousavi and other leaders speaking out against sanctions for "for what appear to be tactical reasons."  So the opinion of Mousavi, who was the face of the Green Movement and actually stood for office, can be summarily dismissed, but the thoughts of anonymous "dissidents and activists" are grounds for robust sanctions.

Puzzlingly, the authors paint China and Russia as complicit in Tehran's pillaging of natural resources, yet do not recognize that sanctions are meaningless without full international cooperation.  The U.S. could pass harsh unilateral sanctions on Iran, and would most likely be supported by many European allies.  However, if Russia and, even more, China, could undermine any sanctions simply by continuing to trade.  The growing energy appetite of China and Russian refinement capabilities could comfortably offset the loss of trade from the U.S. and Europe.  In other words, the Obama Administration is constrained in what it can do, something the authors fail to recognize.

Harsh sanctions are not the answer in Iran.  The risk of playing into the hands of Tehran's hardliners by acting as "the Great Satan" is high, and the potential payoff is low, especially without full international support.  More troubling is the idea that the authors speak for "Iranians who yearn for democracy," yet fail to produce a shred of proof that the disparate members of the loosely-affiliated Green Movement would welcome international sanctions.  Dubowitz and Weinthal, and Slate, should know better.


Catie Corbin said...

As always, a very interesting piece, Dave. What are your opinions on alternatives?

Patrick E said...

Dave, you've definitely made the case for not considering harsh sanctions to be a magic bullet. Our Administration is well-advised to keep pursuing other avenues in the meantime, like it did engagement earlier. But it worries me that foreign policy folks seem willing to give up on sanctions entirely instead of finding ways to make sanctions more effective and likely to succeed, as there have been progress and successes in this area. It's one thing to show they're often ineffectual or weaker than expected, and another thing to show that they're counter-productive and thus should be avoided.

Let's take the South Africa sanctions and their effect on the South African arms industry. A "rational actor" view would hold that, if South Africa was importing weapons instead of manufacturing its own, it would be because importing weapons is cheaper and more effective than building your own. Then with sanctions, it was forced to go through the difficult and expensive process of developing your own domestic arms market. Not having the "How Sanctions Work: Lessons from South Africa" book you recommend ($42 paperback? Really?? ;) I think it might underestimate the costs South Africa experienced -- in terms of deviated human, monetary and natural resources that weakened the apartheid regime -- to build its otherwise "successful" domestic arms industry. So based on these assumptions, sanctions were effective, just much less than expected.

History provides plenty of actually counter-productive sanctions -- for example, the blanket sanctions against Iraq after the first Gulf War that devastated regular Iraqis -- but I think the USG has learned a good bit from these (belatedly.) For example, the "smart" sanctions against Iran target specifically the businesses managed by -- and profitable to -- Iran's Revolutionary Guard. It's hard to imagine them having a strong rally-around-the-flag effect unless the weakened regime successfully makes the case that they're designed by the West to harm ordinary Iranians and not the IRG, and the West fails to push back on that narrative. Granted, China (and Russia, I presume) have histories of ignoring even the sanctions that they sign on to -- it'll be interesting to see how that develops.

Ohm51 said...

My submitted comment to Slate regarding the propaganda piece was promptly deleted by its moderators (apparently) ... if it ever appeared ... I don't know as they don't delineate if submitted commentary is pursuant to (or pending) approval.

Regardless, the article: 'Disrupt Iran's Oil Trade, Aid the Green Movement' was rather blatant propaganda, for all the reasons articulated above in how their argument was buttressed by a host of unsubstantiated 'Iranian experts' and un-named sources ostensibly connected to the Green Movement, as well as reflecting the authors' (plural) own personal and professional animus and bias toward Iran.

Mark Dubowitz leads the Iran Energy Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies, despite the altruism implied in the name, is not exactly defending democracies rather a non partisan chop shop of neoconservative illuminates such as James woolsey, Newt Gingrich, and Joe Lieberman promoting (and operating on) the same (Israel First) worldview that brought us into the Iraq War. Demagogues with a pointed and particular agenda, foremost of which is the Iran Energy Project ... the focus of which is to deprive and disrupt Iran's energy sector.

I am certain that such folks are quite cognizant that the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent US entry into WW11, was the Japanese reaction to a US blockade of petroleum against Japan ... and one must wonder if their hopes pin on a similar trajectory ... the hope of an Iranian retalitory action to their recommended provocations.

In any event, this article both skirts and distorts the underlying premise, that Iran
actually has a nuclear weapons program ... a 'fact' entered without any evidence.

All such distortions rest on the notion that Iranian nuclear enrichment is illegal under international conventions, and tantamount to pursueing nuclear weapons.

I would say that both such contentions are demonstrably incorrect.

Dave Reidy said...


Excellent points, and thanks for reading. You're right that sanctions have evolved since the first Gulf War, and that well-applied sanctions do raise transaction costs on the target. To continue the South African example, creating a domestic manufacturing capability imposed costs on the regime that would not have otherwise existed (and I share your utter amazement and frustration that they can charge $42 for an old paperback). Targeted "smart" sanctions, such as those currently being applied to members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, can be effective without the problems that arose under earlier "blanket" sanctions.

These types of sanctions, however, are necessarily limited in their efficacy and scope, since they target an individual person or entity, and are also easier to evade. For example, if one company ends up on a targeted sanction list, assets can be transferred through shell corporations to bust the sanctions. For a great example, see this NYT story on Iranian shipping -

Furthermore, while the risk is lower, I wouldn't discount the potential of a "rally-round-the-flag" response. This is particularly true in Iran, where the floundering economy is a huge weakness of the regime and the source of most domestic discontent. More comprehensive sanctions risk allowing the Supreme Leader to shift the blame for economic deprivation to the Great Satan, letting his regime off the hook. Targeted sanctions walk a fine line in attempting to avoid this response, but don't forget that Ahmadinejad was in fact once elected (though not in the latest election) and the blame the Americans gambit has worked before. It's not a fait accompli, but it is a possibility that would be tremendously damaging to America efforts.

And of course then there is the fact that sanctions are moot if China doesn't get on board...


Dave Reidy said...


Thanks for reading. I can't speak to the Slate comment policy since I don't write there, but here at D&D we encourage all comments so long as they aren't personal or racist attacks. We may disagree, but we will do so respectfully in the hope of fostering discussion.

Your larger point, that the very issue of Iran's nuclear program is contested, is much too large and important an issue to address here in the comments section. Look for a more comprehensive post soon. Thanks for reading.


Dave Reidy said...


Thanks for reading. Unfortunately the US is constrained and has limited options in dealing with Iran. Personally, I think the danger of overreach and triggering a "rally-round-the-flag" response in Iran domestically is high and extremely damaging to US goals. The best course of action may be to continue seeking to constrain Iran without going too far and allow the regime to rot from the inside, but the reality is that there are no good options.

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