Op-ed: Sanctions against Iran won’t make much of a difference

Is the Bush administration’s recent announcement of tough sanctions against Iran’s Quds Force and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as supporters of terrorism and proliferators of weapons of mass destruction an effort to avoid military action or a step toward it? Let’s hope it’s the former. Whatever the intent, unilateral sanctions won’t force Iran to drop its insistence on enriching uranium.

Sanctions do escalate pressure on Iran, but their economic and political effects are minimal. Unilateral sanctions have never quickly and decisively achieved the hoped-for policy change. (Think Iraq. Think Cuba.) The global economy makes finding other sources of capital, goods, and services too easy.

U.S. sanctions may be better understood as a domestic political strategy. Most members of the Administration apparently oppose strikes against Iranian enrichment facilities, since they would merely slow Iran’s nuclear program, make life harder for U.S. troops in Iraq, and undermine Iranian reformers. If reformer Mohammad Khatami is plotting a presidential comeback in 2009, strikes would pull the rug out from under him.

U.S. sanctions would also alienate China and Russia, who have resisted United Nations approval of what would be more effective multilateral sanctions. But sanctions may placate a strident, influential minority in Washington who are clamoring for an attack, giving the administration room to pursue diplomacy.

Yet the sanctions may also be interpreted as a step towards military action. Russia and others argue that aggressive sanctions will make Iran feel “cornered” and thus make a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue less likely. With the possibility of diplomatic success receding and one non-military option removed from the table, we move inexorably closer to strikes.

An alternative, more cynical analysis sees sanctions as an ominous attempt to justify an existing military plan. Were sanctions merely implemented as a step to bolster the argument that “no alternative” remains but attack?

Given the rancorous history of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic, what Iran needs right now are not sticks, such as sanctions or threats of military strike, but carrots. The carrots Iran wants are regional security guarantees and promises not to attack the state or attempt to overthrow the government.

Iranian fear of Western-backed regime change is deep-seated. It’s based not only in the CIA-assisted overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq’s popular democratic government in 1953, but also in British assistance to the autocratic Reza Khan (the Shah’s father) in his 1921 overthrow of Iran’s ruling dynasty.

The fate of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and media banter about destroying the Iranian regime feed Iranian insecurities. As a result, skepticism about U.S. intentions is most extreme in Iran. A 2005 World Public Opinion (WPO) survey of 1,000 randomly selected Iranians found only 10 percent believed the goal of the War on Terror is to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks. The rest think it’s a ruse to gain control of the Middle East’s resources or to weaken and divide the Islamic world.

With powerful security guarantees on the table the U.S. might find the Iranian government and population more secure and thus more willing to negotiate on the nuclear issue.

Katherine Blue Carroll is an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. This article was originally published in The Tennessean Nov. 2, 2007.

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