Why Iran sanctions won't work
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Getty Images)
February 29th, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Why Iran sanctions won't work

Editor's Note: Ali Vaez is the director of Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

By Ali Vaez - Special to CNN

The Iranian nuclear crisis is nearing its tenth anniversary. All attempts to resolve the standoff during the past decade have come to naught. There are simply no easy solutions to this conundrum.

For some in the West, however, firm belief in the elixir of crippling sanctions has congealed into a doctrine. It is only a question of time, they argue, but Tehran will eventually give in to “overwhelming force.” The Obama administration’s mastery in marshaling international support for imposing a panoply of draconian sanctions on Iran is beyond doubt. Yet the fundamental premises of this policy are misguided at best, misleading at worst.The first presumption is that by pushing the Iranian theocracy to the brink of economic meltdown with unprecedented sanctions, the regime will capitulate and forfeit its nuclear program to secure its survival. Advocates of this coercive policy evoke historical precedent as a testament to propensity of the custodians of the Iranian revolution to surrender under pressure.

In 1988, the father of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, drank the “poison chalice,” and ended the eight-year war with Iraq. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in 2003 after U.S. invasion of Iraq, gave his consent for suspending uranium enrichment and proposing a grand bargain with Washington.

But 2012 is neither 1988, nor 2003. Also, despite similar spellings of their names, Khamenei is no Khomeini. Khomeini of 1988 was impervious to the domestic backlash of compromising with the enemy due to his personal charisma, political authority and religious credentials. Khameini of 2012 lacks all of those qualities.

Khamenei struggled for more than two decades to adopt the mantle of leadership that was bequeathed to him. Now that he has finally consolidated his position at the pinnacle of power, calling off the storm would be political suicide. Even using scapegoats to shift the blame is no longer an option.

Since the 2009 disputed presidential election, he has increasingly and publicly appropriated all levers of power at his grip. His recent statement that, “pressures, sanctions and assassinations will bear no fruit. No obstacles can stop Iran's nuclear work,” is thus to be expected. Humiliation is not an option for Khamenei.

With Iranian pragmatists and reformists either sitting at their homes or writing their memoirs in exile, the corridors of power in Iran are barren of former dealmakers. Missed opportunities and Western disregard for the moderates’ past openings played into Khamenei’s hands and resulted in the reckless purge of the likes of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. Today, the supreme leader is surrounded by servile sycophants who compete to demonstrate the depth of their animus towards the “Great Satan.”

The second assumption is that once economically weakened and internationally isolated, the Iranian regime will be vulnerable and could collapse by domestic uprising (preferably) or war (if need be).

Yet, regime change is unlikely to usher in a democratic, pro-Western and anti-nuclear government. The proponents of this scenario should ask themselves questions such as: Why did the 2009 uprising come to grief? Why was the Green Movement an ephemeral affair? Why has Iran remained immune to the wave of pro-democracy uprisings in the region?

The answer, in Victor Hugo’s words, is that the Iranian nation, “asks nothing but repose; it thirsts for but one thing, peace. Of great events, great hazards, great adventures, great men, thank God, they have seen enough.” In addition to revolutionary fatigue, absent a viable political alternative, for Iranians there is no obvious choice between anarchy and tyranny.

To make matters worse, the Iranian opposition is in shambles. Brutal repression inside the country has nipped any recalcitrant challengers of the regime in the bud. Lacking organization, planning and vision, the exiled opposition appears inauspiciously divided. Thus, from the ashes of a bloody revolution or a ruinous war ousting the ancien regime, a more formidable and less compromising order is likely to rise. The most probable scenario is that the existing militaristic theocracy will be replaced with an Islamic military regime.

History bears witness to vacuousness of claims that sanctions and war are conduits to Jeffersonian democracy. The Iraqi debacle should hold a mirror to those demanding a repeat of the same folly.

The current Western policy is counterproductive in many ways. It is pushing Khamenei in the wrong direction by increasingly cornering him. It might not be long before he will be compelled to repeat the infamous words of Pakistan's Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, pledging in 1965 to make a nuclear bomb, “even at the cost of eating grass.”

Khamenei’s hostility towards the U.S. might be irreconcilable, but it is not implacable. He has always sought to fine tune the regime’s level of anti-Americanism: Enough to serve as his regime’s ideological cement, but not too much to threaten his ultimate goal of self-preservation. The pendulum of animosity has now swung too far towards confrontation. He would welcome a return to equilibrium.

The West should now test Khamenei’s willingness to accept a face-saving compromise. Although his rhetoric remains bellicose, he might be more amenable to an agreement. The West should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and take this chance to address, at least, its immediate proliferation concerns, such as capping the level of uranium enrichment and number of advanced centrifuges in Iran’s bunker nuclear facilities. The time is not yet ripe for democracy and better relations with the West. But under the shadow of peace, what seems inconceivable now could be inevitable over time.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ali Vaez.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Iran • Strategy • United States

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