Iran sanctions, Iran engagement and their discontents


I’m not sure how pervasive this debate is outside the beltway, but in DC there’s a growing advocacy movement against intensifying Iran sanctions. It’s having an effect; sanctioning the Islamic Republic was once a no-brainer around here. No longer.

Its principal advocate is the National Iranian American Council, but there are advocates within the pro-Israel community as well, notably Americans for Peace Now.

The argument boils down to this: So far, it’s been all sticks and no carrots, and that’s not going to bring anyone around. It’s not entirely accurate; the Bush administration did not directly engage with Iran until its final months, but it did back European engagement — a process, by the way, that left the Europeans in despair and in some cases, more hard-line than the Americans. Moreover, Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s second-term secretary of state, attempted to directly engage the Iranians, to little avail.

More disturbing is the private conversations I’ve had with some advocates of greater outreach and fewer sanctions: Sanctions don’t work, they will say.

This is ahistorical. Sanctions don’t work — until they do.

What I mean is that while it is true that a historical argument may be made that sanctions do not work incrementally — that give-a-little-get-a-little is too inherently reasonable when dealing with the fundamentally unstable —  they have worked ultimately, and after a period when they seemed at their most counterproductive. I’m thinking of South Africa and the end of Apartheid, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Especially in South Africa’s case, repression intensified until it finally broke.

The better argument by those who would increase accommodation of Iran, I think, is that all sanctions all the time may alienate ordinary Iranians — a population that shows more signs than others in the region of seeking western succour.

The advantage opponents of Apartheid and of the Soviet Union had was communication with the oppressed populations; those advocating and implementing sanctions were able to consult with the oppressed to find out which sanctions the ordinary people would forgive in the long run and which they would oppose.

That has not been the case with Iran where a reliable opposition has yet to emerge — until now. Tehran Bureau has provided some of the most-up-to date reports of the emerging revolution; one of its writers, here, favors sanctions — but not those that turn Iranians away from the West, particularly sanctions that the writer claims have engendered one of the highest air crash rates in the world:

Since the Revolution, many airplanes have crashed in Iran. Roughly 1,500 flight incidents have been reported, including more than 60 crashes that led to the loss of 1,571 lives. In 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers over the Persian Gulf. The captain of the ship, William C. Rogers III, was later awarded the Legion of Merit for his command.

As for the rest of the 1,571 dead passengers, the US still carries a part of the blame. I know no one in the United States planned to kill any of these passengers, but still they failed to ensure that their government’s sanctions had their desired effect — to hurt the Islamic government. Instead, it has been the people who have paid the price.

The spiralling oppression after the rigged June 12 elections coupled with the miserable history of attempts to engage the regime is what led Ned Walker, a former ambassador to Israel, to dissent from a recommendation by a 15-expert Israel Policy Forum panel to continue to engage. (This is the second time to day I’ve cited the IPF report. They’re around the corner. Somebody better run on over with a popsicle or something.)

Here’s Walker:

What appears to be happening in Iran is the return of the Shah, or monarchy, in clerical garb. It is SAVAK all over again and it is unlikely that dialogue can do anything to change the course of history in the absence of a unified global opposition to the self-sustaining security/political/clerical apparatus existent in Iran. The Revolutionary Guard is not going quietly and will not give up their privileges easily. Religion is no longer the dominating force: guns, arrests, and the reins of power are.  

The evolving leadership in Iran will be far less likely to open up to the West or to the US since it sees the forces that we represent as being inimical to their hold on power. So, while the US needs to keep a door open for the future, we should not kid ourselves with wishful thinking. What is happening in Iran will only reinforce those in Hamas and Hezbollah who believe that they have to maintain an iron grip on power and that their greatest vulnerability is the West and what the West stands for.  

A policy of accommodation is the least likely policy to succeed. We face a period in which there may be very little that we can do with Iran for some time to come. In that case we should be using this time to focus on China, Russia and the Europeans to build a solid coalition against nuclear proliferation and the terrorism that Ahmadinejad and the current regime represents. We need a coherent policy that can be sold in the broader international community, as well as at home. And, we need a policy that Israel can buy into.

(How do I know the dissenter is Ned if it doesn’t say so in the link? He said so on an IPF conference call today. Quoth Walker on the call: "An open door at this point will only reinforce the authorities in opposition to what we stand for.")

I think Ned is right to liken the current regime to the Shah — not only because it is showing signs of being in its final, dangerous throes but because there is a bizarre chorus in the isolate-Iran crowd that cries out for the perpetuation of the current regime because they believe it to be Iran’s truer face. This, I’ve argued, is counterintuitive in the extreme — at least when the United States and Israel helped prop up the Shah, it was in exchange for tangibles; In this case, we’re all for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because of, what, some perverse affection for authentic evil?

At the Washington Times, Andrew Apostolou of Freedom House gives the "Ahmadinejad is the real deal" crowd suitably short shrift:

According to their line of thought, if you are serious about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state, want to end Iranian sponsorship of terrorism and want to stop Iran from throwing its weight around in the Middle East, then Mr. Ahmadinejad is your man. Mr. Ahmadinejad supposedly does our work for us, isolating the Iranian regime and exposing the dangerous ambitions that Iran’s "reformers" were so adept at hiding. Better for Iran to be run by a man who is openly hostile to the West than by a smiling deceiver — as his failed challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi might have been or as his predecessor Mohammad Khatami was.

Unfortunately, this clever twist on the Iranian election is gratuitously cruel toward Iranians and makes little sense.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leader of this insurrection, is not a godsend, Apostolou argues, but is better than the alternative:

To be sure, Mr. Mousavi would not have been a substantial improvement. He has no background as a reformer. Nor is he a lover of Zion. Nor is he a democrat. Mr. Mousavi oversaw a brutal war economy in the 1980s when mass human rights violations were the norm. However, with Iran likely to acquire nuclear weapons sooner or later, it makes sense for us to want the most rational Iranian fingers on that most dangerous button, not the ones that make for bad press.


Mr. Mousavi ran a strong campaign arguing that Mr. Ahmadinejad was driving Iran off a cliff, accusing him of "superstition and adventurism" as well as "irrational management." Mr. Mousavi’s direction is precisely the one that we want Iran to follow — toward caution and away from recklessness, toward restraint and away from adventurism.

Had Mr. Mousavi prevailed, this would not have resolved any outstanding issues with Iran. Yet it is inconceivable that the victory of a genocide-minded, anti-Semitic religious fanatic is better.

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