Can Sanctions Change Iran's Mind?

As the U.S. and Europe belatedly ratchet up sanctions against Iran, some people cling to the hope that vigorous sanctions may yet force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.  Both America and the SC are pressuring Israel to give international sanctions more time to work before making a final decision to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.

Some people have even cited the U.N.'s 1990-91 efforts to alter Iraq's actions as an example of a successful sanctions regime.  Indeed, one commentator recently asserted that those sanctions "brought Iraq to its knees and forced it to accept the provisions of [Security Council] Resolution 687 on April 6, 1991 -- just three days after they were passed." 

Contrary to what some people now believe (or have forgotten), sanctions on Iraq proved to be an abject failure.  It is worth reviewing what actually happened once the U.N.-imposed that sanctions regime in order to apply those lessons to today's situation. 

In August 1990, the Security Council imposed a near-total financial and trade embargo on Iraq.  Eight months later, following the end of the Gulf War, the Security Council passed an even tougher resolution calling for the removal of weapons of mass destruction (including the destruction of chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles with a range greater than 160 km).  The U.N. further established UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission) with which Iraq was required to cooperate on WMD compliance matters (Resolution 687). 

From 1991 to 2003, the Security Council passed a long series of resolutions reinforcing the restrictions on Saddam's government and implementing the "Oil-for-Food" program (Resolution 986).  The program allowed Iraq to sell a fixed amount of oil on the world market in order to purchase food and other humanitarian supplies for its citizens, thus staving off a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

Taken together, the sanctions regime was far broader and harsher than anything now being imposed on Iran.  The goal of the many Security Council resolutions was to convince Saddam Hussein to change his brutal internal policies and terminate his WMD program while limiting the suffering of the general population.

In practice, Saddam continued to brutalize his own people while refusing to cooperate with the U.N.'s WMD inspectors.  Time after time, Saddam stated that he would allow full inspection of his suspected WMD sites, only to renege on his promise or interfere with those inspections at the last minute.  For a number of reasons, "Oil-for-Food" was only partially successful.  Saddam ran an illicit oil trade of his own and smuggled prohibited items into Iraq.  He and his inner circle lived in lavish palaces even as his people suffered torture and privation.

Unquestionably, Saddam continued his efforts to obtain materials to advance his WMD program.  In 2003, the head of the U.N.'s Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, reported the discovery of "dozens of WMD-related program activities" hidden from the U.N.  He later testified that Iraq was attempting to produce deadly ricin "right up to the end."  Contrary to the generally held belief that no WMD were found, Kay observed only that Saddam had not produced large-scale stockpiles of WMD.

Similar to today's efforts vis-à-vis Iran, Russia, China, and, to a lesser degree, other Security Council members hindered successful enforcement of Iraqi sanctions.  It took the U.S. and its Coalition partners over a decade to come to the realization that Iraq would continue to play games without changing its fundamental policies.

Clearly, the tough Iraq sanctions were failing.  Continuing to "enforce" the ever-weakening sanctions regime was no longer an option.  Keeping sanctions in place would have resulted in many more civilian deaths.  Had sanctions been lifted without proper U.N. verification and enforcement, it was certain that Saddam would fully reconstitute his WMD programs with potentially disastrous results.  This was the impetus for the Second Gulf War.

Fast-forward to today: 

Sanctions are predicated on the assumption that leaders will make "rational" decisions based on economic calculations.  They will recognize that it is in their own best interest to accept the demands of the outside world in order to avoid isolation and economic deterioration caused by sanctions.  

Iran's leaders have so far failed to react according to the Western concept of rationality.  Iran's treatment of the IAEA inspectors over the past few days is a disturbing echo of Saddam's actions.  Similar to Saddam, Iran's leaders have little incentive to cooperate because sanctions have not limited impact on their internal authority or personal living conditions.  They may feel that acceding to external demands would be a sign of weakness and actually hasten their downfall.  They may rightly assume that, once they have achieved their objective of developing nuclear weapons, Iran's position as a regional power will be strengthened, and the world will be forced to lift the sanctions.  For them, sanctions are only a temporary inconvenience. 

Combine all of this with their radical religious beliefs -- Iran is a superior society; martyrdom is the desired course for establishing a worldwide caliphate through the coming of the Mahdi -- and Iran's leaders are acting "rationally" within their own non-Western frame of reference.

Iraq is a perfect example of the futility of sanctions when there is a disconnect between a people's suffering and their leaders' value system and lack of compassion.  With this historical precedent, it is hard to understand why anyone would conclude that the weaker and more porous sanctions now being imposed on Iran will cause that country to terminate its nuclear weapons program anytime soon. 

We all hope that Iran can be convinced to halt its apparently inexorable drive toward nuclear armament without the need for military action.  However, in light of the U.N.'s experience with Iraq, it would seem that even a much more robust series of sanctions on Iran may be a futile exercise at this late date.

Let's be clear: the choice is not between maintaining the status quo and dealing with the aftermath of a military strike.  The choice is between stopping Iran now (even if that requires military action) and facing a nuclear armed Iran later on.  Sadly, if concerted action is delayed much longer, it could well be too late for Israel and the world.

The author, a former U.S. diplomat, was directly involved in enforcing U.N. sanctions against Iraq and in implementing the "Oil-for-Food" program.

As the U.S. and Europe belatedly ratchet up sanctions against Iran, some people cling to the hope that vigorous sanctions may yet force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.  Both America and the SC are pressuring Israel to give international sanctions more time to work before making a final decision to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.

Some people have even cited the U.N.'s 1990-91 efforts to alter Iraq's actions as an example of a successful sanctions regime.  Indeed, one commentator recently asserted that those sanctions "brought Iraq to its knees and forced it to accept the provisions of [Security Council] Resolution 687 on April 6, 1991 -- just three days after they were passed." 

Contrary to what some people now believe (or have forgotten), sanctions on Iraq proved to be an abject failure.  It is worth reviewing what actually happened once the U.N.-imposed that sanctions regime in order to apply those lessons to today's situation. 

In August 1990, the Security Council imposed a near-total financial and trade embargo on Iraq.  Eight months later, following the end of the Gulf War, the Security Council passed an even tougher resolution calling for the removal of weapons of mass destruction (including the destruction of chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles with a range greater than 160 km).  The U.N. further established UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission) with which Iraq was required to cooperate on WMD compliance matters (Resolution 687). 

From 1991 to 2003, the Security Council passed a long series of resolutions reinforcing the restrictions on Saddam's government and implementing the "Oil-for-Food" program (Resolution 986).  The program allowed Iraq to sell a fixed amount of oil on the world market in order to purchase food and other humanitarian supplies for its citizens, thus staving off a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

Taken together, the sanctions regime was far broader and harsher than anything now being imposed on Iran.  The goal of the many Security Council resolutions was to convince Saddam Hussein to change his brutal internal policies and terminate his WMD program while limiting the suffering of the general population.

In practice, Saddam continued to brutalize his own people while refusing to cooperate with the U.N.'s WMD inspectors.  Time after time, Saddam stated that he would allow full inspection of his suspected WMD sites, only to renege on his promise or interfere with those inspections at the last minute.  For a number of reasons, "Oil-for-Food" was only partially successful.  Saddam ran an illicit oil trade of his own and smuggled prohibited items into Iraq.  He and his inner circle lived in lavish palaces even as his people suffered torture and privation.

Unquestionably, Saddam continued his efforts to obtain materials to advance his WMD program.  In 2003, the head of the U.N.'s Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, reported the discovery of "dozens of WMD-related program activities" hidden from the U.N.  He later testified that Iraq was attempting to produce deadly ricin "right up to the end."  Contrary to the generally held belief that no WMD were found, Kay observed only that Saddam had not produced large-scale stockpiles of WMD.

Similar to today's efforts vis-à-vis Iran, Russia, China, and, to a lesser degree, other Security Council members hindered successful enforcement of Iraqi sanctions.  It took the U.S. and its Coalition partners over a decade to come to the realization that Iraq would continue to play games without changing its fundamental policies.

Clearly, the tough Iraq sanctions were failing.  Continuing to "enforce" the ever-weakening sanctions regime was no longer an option.  Keeping sanctions in place would have resulted in many more civilian deaths.  Had sanctions been lifted without proper U.N. verification and enforcement, it was certain that Saddam would fully reconstitute his WMD programs with potentially disastrous results.  This was the impetus for the Second Gulf War.

Fast-forward to today: 

Sanctions are predicated on the assumption that leaders will make "rational" decisions based on economic calculations.  They will recognize that it is in their own best interest to accept the demands of the outside world in order to avoid isolation and economic deterioration caused by sanctions.  

Iran's leaders have so far failed to react according to the Western concept of rationality.  Iran's treatment of the IAEA inspectors over the past few days is a disturbing echo of Saddam's actions.  Similar to Saddam, Iran's leaders have little incentive to cooperate because sanctions have not limited impact on their internal authority or personal living conditions.  They may feel that acceding to external demands would be a sign of weakness and actually hasten their downfall.  They may rightly assume that, once they have achieved their objective of developing nuclear weapons, Iran's position as a regional power will be strengthened, and the world will be forced to lift the sanctions.  For them, sanctions are only a temporary inconvenience. 

Combine all of this with their radical religious beliefs -- Iran is a superior society; martyrdom is the desired course for establishing a worldwide caliphate through the coming of the Mahdi -- and Iran's leaders are acting "rationally" within their own non-Western frame of reference.

Iraq is a perfect example of the futility of sanctions when there is a disconnect between a people's suffering and their leaders' value system and lack of compassion.  With this historical precedent, it is hard to understand why anyone would conclude that the weaker and more porous sanctions now being imposed on Iran will cause that country to terminate its nuclear weapons program anytime soon. 

We all hope that Iran can be convinced to halt its apparently inexorable drive toward nuclear armament without the need for military action.  However, in light of the U.N.'s experience with Iraq, it would seem that even a much more robust series of sanctions on Iran may be a futile exercise at this late date.

Let's be clear: the choice is not between maintaining the status quo and dealing with the aftermath of a military strike.  The choice is between stopping Iran now (even if that requires military action) and facing a nuclear armed Iran later on.  Sadly, if concerted action is delayed much longer, it could well be too late for Israel and the world.

The author, a former U.S. diplomat, was directly involved in enforcing U.N. sanctions against Iraq and in implementing the "Oil-for-Food" program.