What to Do with Sanctions
Western Iran-watchers have been pleased these past few weeks to see evidence that international sanctions against the Islamic Republic appear to have precipitated the collapse of local currency and demonstrations in the marketplace. The EU added a new sanctions package last week. Finally, they seem to be saying, we're getting having an impact -- more sanctions, better sanctions, "crippling sanctions" are better than military operations.
Certainly they are different from military operations.
Sanctions drive up prices, so they have an impact on people who are price-sensitive -- people without government protection. But those whose behavior the international community is trying to modify are much less sensitive to economic or social cost than a) regular people and b) the international community itself.
Fidel and Raúl have never missed a meal or a cigar over the sanctions that have impoverished Cuba since 1962. North Korea's nuclear and missile programs proceed apace, and Kim Jong-un looks quite well-fed, while hunger is widespread among the politically unconnected. Saddam, Uday, and Kusay lived in over-the-top luxury despite more than a decade of international sanctions. Check the bankbooks of the Hamas-approved smugglers in the Gaza Strip.
Dictatorships understand the Western psyche, however. They talk about hungry children, sick people, and bread lines until the West starts to worry more about the suffering we cause than the suffering they cause -- at which point the "international community" creates humanitarian programs for "the people." The Gaza flotilla and Oil for Food are case studies in the moral manipulation of the West. Notice that there is no attempt to manipulate the morality of Bashar Assad -- there are no Aleppo flotillas -- because he is unmanipulatable. But Iran's Foreign Ministry denounced sanctions as "inhumane" and "illegal," and Ban Ki-moon jumped to express concern about sanctions hurting "the people" and driving up the cost of medicine. "Crippling sanctions" will speed up the process of impoverishment long before it causes the mullahs to change their minds about the utility of nuclear weapons.
Will the "international community" hang tough? The U.S. did, once. Let's see how that worked out.
U.N. sanctions were imposed on Iraq during and after the occupation of Kuwait, beginning with a resolution on 6 August 1990. Six weeks later, the first modification was made to ensure that the food situation in Iraq did not become dire. On 3 April 1991, after the liberation of Kuwait, the U.N. undertook to obtain a comprehensive picture of Saddam's arsenal and required that Iraq permit the inspection of all weapons sites; provide a complete accounting of its missile, chemical, biological, and nuclear-related arsenals; and show evidence of their destruction. By August of 1991, Oil for Food was underway. Everything after that was repetition of the U.N.'s concerns that Saddam wasn't doing what he was required to do -- that is, ensuring that oil would be sold in order to provide humanitarian aid to the civilian population.
Nevertheless, the U.N. estimated that between 1990 and 1995, "half a million children under the age of five died of malnutrition and preventable diseases. Sanctions impose artificial famine. A third of Iraq's surviving children today have stunted growth and nutritional deficiencies that will deform their shortened lives." In 1996, Leslie Stahl questioned then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Albright replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it."
Worth it to whom? Certainly not to the children.
The sanctions ended only when the U.S. coalition invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam. Which might have been the best rationale for the war, because sanctions hadn't in the least affected Saddam's stonewalling. Read everything Claudia Rosett wrote on the subject to understand how Oil for Food ended up filling the pockets of French, German, and Russian middlemen and government agents, not to mention U.N. officials, and to understand how their creepy greed affected their political choices.
But shades of Iraq, the EU's new round of sanctions based on limiting the financing of sales of exports to and from Iran, includes "exceptions for those involving humanitarian aid, food and medicine purchases and provisions for legitimate trade."
As long as Iran sells oil -- which it still does under waivers to Turkey, India, Malaysia, and China, among others -- the price of chicken doesn't matter. Scientists are still paid, and there are still companies and operators willing to sell equipment to the regime. Sweden opposes the new EU sanctions -- could it be because of the Ericsson telecom deal that would provide the mullahs with more up-to-date technology to track the opposition through their cell phones?
The idea that sanctions need to be "tightened" to prevent the sale of oil needs examination. Aside from the subversion factor -- which appears to be present in just about every case -- China's relationship with Iran is driven in part by China's interest in muting Iranian support for the Muslim Uighurs of China's western provinces. It is driven as well by China's desire to assert itself against the U.S., which also explains its unwillingness to impose sanctions on Syria. China imports more than 55 percent of its oil, a figure that has increased in the past year. Its agreement to stop buying Iranian oil was obtained because the waiver was in the offing. There is no guarantee -- and evidence to the contrary -- that if the U.S. said, "No more waivers; no more oil imports," China could abandon even the pretense of agreement.
While China and Russia have agreed to support a U.S.-backed resolution demanding that Iran stop activities that could be used to make nuclear arms, it contains no enforcement mechanism. And it raises the question of other Chinese military activity in Iran, including the sale of missile technology and assistance to North Korea in shipping weapons to Iran.
Sanctions may have a role to play in slowing Iran's march to nuclear capability, but the history of their application does not lend itself to optimism as to the international community's ability to change or constrain a dictatorship's behavior. The optimism lies largely in the belief that the next round, a bigger round, a better round, a tighter round will be the round that works.
In the real world, where greed and national interest (Iran's and others') rule, it would be wise to gather as much information as possible, support the opposition as much as possible, and never take any option, overt or covert, off the table.
Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.