Talks to Impose Sanctions on Iran: Constructive or Destructive

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The representative’s of great powers gathered together in New York to discuss about new round of sanctions against Iran and called their talks “constructive”1 . Human experience has manifested that “wrong way dose not lead to right target”, however, it seems that some do not want to learn from the past. Sanctions are a false idea, inefficient tool and self-defeating policy. For these reasons these kinds of talks not only are not constructive, but actually destructive....

The representative’s of great powers gathered together in New York to discuss about new round of sanctions against Iran and called their talks “constructive“1 . Human experience has manifested that “wrong way dose not lead to right target“, however, it seems that some do not want to learn from the past. Sanctions are a false idea, inefficient tool and self-defeating policy. For these reasons these kinds of talks not only are not constructive, but actually destructive.
False Idea
One important assumption of sanctions is that if we do not give some technologies or benefits to a country, it cannot achieve them. Based on this assumption, western countries, especially the US, have imposed different unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran during the past three decades.
This assumption neglects the creativity of others. Although, international cooperation will substantially decrease the necessary time and resources, however development of science, technology and economy is not something that must be imported from abroad or is only possible through cooperation with others.
Science and technology do not have borders and do not recognize sovereignty. A big country with enough resources and talents can achieve its independent development through appropriate management. If western countries could achieve their development, the others can do, too. There are many cases of independent achievements and Iran is no exception. Although, Iran has been under severe sanctions by the US and its allies for thirty years, but it is now much more powerful than before the revolution, when it was a US ally, and more developed than many US allies in the Middle East.
Another false assumption is that sanction is a peaceful instrument to achieve political objectives. However, if we compare the consequences of sanctions with casualties of nuclear and chemical weapons, we reach to the conclusion that sanction is a WMD more dangerous than the others. Thirteen years of sanction against Iraq killed more than 1.5 million people, mainly children.2 We oppose WMDs because we believe that the lives of people are valuable and sacred and WMDs demolish a society without distinction. If targeting population of a country is immoral, what is the difference between targeting them by nuclear and chemical weapons and targeting them by sanctions?
As sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s manifested clearly, it is even worse than Nuclear and chemical weapons, because those weapons kill and destroy every one. Some of them may be responsible or be able to defend themselves or flee from the battle field. But the target of sanctions is mostly children, elders, women, patients and the poor sections of societies, those who are not responsible and cannot defend themselves. If the west is concerned about human rights and democracy, they know clearly that sanctions and military threats do not strengthen but weaken both.
From a different point of view, sanctions are more destructive than WMD, because it has destructive consequences for both the targeting and the target. It prevents or limits trade and interactions among nations. In this way, it not only has negative effects on sanctioned country, but also on its trade partners and has domino effects on others and is contrary to free trade as a way of bringing peace and prosperity to the world.
Although, some talk about smart or targeted sanctions that target only some officials and industries,3 but actually even smart sanctions are not smart. Targeting economic statecraft also has severe consequences for the society, especially when the targeted government plays an important role in the economy. How we can justify sanctioning banks, refineries, airplanes as smart sanctions to prevent nuclear proliferations? Banks that have been targeted are used mainly by businessmen and women that are forces of global peace and democracy.
Furthermore, preventing Iran from achieving new technologies through sanctions has other direct and indirect consequences. Preventing it from achieving peaceful nuclear technology, creates more problems for needed people in hospitals, more environmental pollutions in big cities and more problems in agricultural fields. All of them are related to life and wellbeing of the people. These kinds of sanctions are not smart but unintelligent.
Furthermore, they increase political risk and prevent long-term investment in the energy section of Iran. The main reason behind rise of oil prices during the past few yeas was former sanctions against Iran, Iraq and Libya during 1990s. Those sanctions led to more income for former sanctioned countries latter, including Iran and more burdens on global economy and western nations. For these reasons sanctions is essentially false and have severe consequences for supporting countries.
Inefficient tool
Sanctions have always been used as political tools to achieve behavior and/or regime change. But successful cases are rare and even those which are regarded as successful, the main reason may not be the sanctions or it cannot have similar result against any country. For the following reasons, they are inefficient against Iran. It neither changes Iranian political system nor its political will to follow its nuclear technology program. Since 1979, putting more pressure against Iran for behavior change and/or regime change has been the main argument behind different kinds of sanctions against this country. If it was efficient, it had already succeeded and it was not necessary to implement a new round. Three decades of failure is enough to believe in inefficacy of a policy.
Sanctions are efficient if it prevents a country from having enough hard currency to invest and finance its needs. During the past three decade, increasing oil revenues has put more financial resources at the disposal of Iranian government. It is a reach country with enough revenues to invest on needed technologies and develop them internally. It not only has been able to satisfy its needs but also to have many achievements in the field of science and technology. For example, it has been able to develop its military technology, aerospace technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology4. It has not been an easy job and without expenses, but Iran has done it. Instead of imposing sanctions, Iranian achievements in the field of science and technology should be appreciated.
The main source of Iranian power is its young and talented people. To benefit from this, Iran has invested more on education during the past decades. Although, international limitations have prevented Iran from achieving higher rate of development, however they have not led to severe problems in the field of science and technology. This is another reason why sanctions dose not work against Iran.
In addition, in a globalized economy it is impossible to impose sanctions on a country in a way to have severe impacts on its will. Supporters of sanction neglect the impact of self-interest in international business5. Sanctions just weaken formal and direct economic relations with some but strengthen it with others. Though, the supporters of sanction can convince some politicians to give their votes but they cannot convince all businessmen to forget their business interests.

Self-defeating Policy
As a policy or strategy to achieve specific goals, sanctions are counterproductive and self-defeating. Iran nuclear program began with western support before the 1979 revolution in Iran.6 Based on the pre-revolution US designed Iranian Nuclear program, Iran needed 20 Nuclear Power plants by 2000. Implemented sanctions after the revolution prevented Iran from achieving this goal. However, it intensified Iranian need for nuclear technology and led Iran to follow a self-sufficiency policy in this field and design a comprehensive program that includes enrichment. So, former sanctions are the root cause of the existence of Iranian independent nuclear program. More sanctions increase Iranian needs for nuclear technology and makes more investment necessary in future.
Moreover, confidence deficit is the main problem between Iran and the west in general and the US in particular. The question is that, whether more resolutions and sanctions are confidence-building measure or confidence-destroying ones? During the past 6 years the UNSC has issued 6 resolutions and implemented sanctions. What have been their achievements? They have just intensified Iranian mistrust toward the sanctioning countries.
Global powers cannot impose sanctions and at the same time expect more transparency and less effort in the direction of self-sufficiency. Sanction and threat not only do not lead to more transparency but also makes it more difficult. The reason is clear: a country which is under severe sanctions, embargo, or other restrictions cannot follow its peaceful program in a transparent manner. Less transparency caused by threats and sanction lead to more mistrust and concern.
It also contributes to tensions. More tensions increase oil prices that are already a burden on global economy. Higher oil prices make provide more financial revenues for Iran but make it more difficult for western countries to continue sanctions. These reasons well prove how self-defeating and counterproductive is sanctions.
Furthermore, passing more resolutions just institutionalize the differences and turn them into hostilities and contribute to failure of diplomacy. Gradually, different counties interest remains in keeping them in place and it makes ending them more difficult. Latter on there will be so much business like negotiations among UN Security Council members about who will benefit removal of which item from the sanctions list.
Additionally, Iran is a major player in central, south and west Asia. Sanctions will prevent cooperation on other fields that are necessary for western powers and make solving other problems more difficult. During the past decades, US sanctions against Iran prevented many cases of cooperation that were in the best interest of the US. By imposing more sanctions, other countries, too, close their hands in cooperating with Iran. There are so many International and regional problems, like terrorism, extremism, drug-trafficking, and other crises and instabilities in the Middle East that cannot be solved without having Iran’s cooperation. It is not right to threaten Iran on nuclear issue and ask for its cooperation on others. If we want to solve the problems, all side’s concerns and interests should be taken into account.
The effects of sanctions will not limit to Iranian economy and society. Iran is located between Afghanistan, Central Asia, Caucuses, Turkey, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. Iran is located at a strategic cross road among all these countries and has strong economic relations with most of them. Without Iranian Market their will be no flourishing economy in Dubai, and |Turkey. Weakening Iranian economy through sanctions will weaken the regional economy of west and central Asia as a whole. At present there are so many crises in the region, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and Caucuses. Because of interlinkages between different social, economic, political and security problems in the region, worsening one would not contribute to solution of others.
Besides, by weakening economic relations, sanctions weaken decision making power of politicians and turn the foreign relations into a play card in the hand of some lobbies. The more the US and EU weaken their relations with Iran, the more they weaken their own decision making power and their influnce on Iran.
For these reasons, imposing sanctions on Iran is a self-defeating and counterproductive policy. Continuation of the current trend makes the problem more emotional, further complicates the situation and leads to escalation of suspicions and tensions. More mistrust and suspicion will securitize everything and will create a lose-lose situation. It’s in everyone’s interest to prevent it from happening.

What could be done?
To solve a problem, we need to understand the cause. The root cause of the problem stems from an imaginary threat that has been made for the west. Iran has always been envisioned as a threat, regardless of what it has done. Iran stopped its nuclear program after the revolution, it was a threat. Iran emphasized on democracy and dialogue from 1997 to 2004, it was a threat. Iran cooperated with the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was a threat and named part of “axis of evil“. Iran implemented additional protocol and solved the main problems with IAEA (2003-2008), it has been a threat. There was much news about “Iranian imminent Threat“ 6 years ago. After six years let’s ask them where those “imminent threats“ are? Now it is happening again.

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The so called “dual strategy of dialogue and sanctions7“ has not given and will not give any result. The real meaning of the strategy is submission and/or punishment.When three decades of threat, sanctions, and imposing political isolation have failed, a wise politician reach to the conclusion that something is wrong and “wrong way do not reach to right target“.
Instead of wasting time, energy and opportunities to attain more support for sanctions, the US and EU can concentrate their efforts on having Iranian cooperation. They are giving many concessions to China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, etc, to have their support against Iran and after some month or years they reach to the conclusion that all of their efforts have been ineffective and even harmful for themselves.
For thirty years the US has invested billions of dollars and thousands of hours to contain, weaken or isolate Iran. Now Iran is much more powerful with a better regional situation. The US supported to war against Iran by Saddam and Taliban. Now Iran is not involved in any war but it is the US that is involved in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the wars that has damaged US reputation, interests, security and wellbeing of its people and has caused loss of life by many US, European, Iraqi and Afghan citizens.8 The costs of improving relations with Tehran for the US and EU is much lower than the costs of imposing sanctions. Why the leaders of some of the civilized nations are more interested in investing in war than peace?
As Mr. Jenkins correctly mentions, confidence deficit is not fated to persist.9 The US and EU’s interest is in engaging Iran and strengthening comprehensive relations. Strengthening relations bounds the nations together and acts as the best confidence-building measure. Furthermore, it is in benefit all sides and is in the benefit if democracy and human rights. To achieve that, taking the following steps will be beneficial.
1-Change the approach. Iran is a normal country like others and both as a nation and as a political system is not a threat for anyone. The “threat“ is not on the ground but just in the mind of those who has created it.
2-Pay attention to three Rs: respect, rights and role. Humiliating a nation with 7 thousand years of civilization by different accusations is not acceptable for anyone.
3-Put aside exclusivist strategy. For a long time, the US has tried to exclude Iran from any economic and political mechanism, form pipeline projects to regional security structures. Neither excludivism, nor selective and opportunistic engagement works. Iran looks for sincere engagement.
4-Behavior change brings behavior change. “Submission or punishment“ is the current strategy toward Iran. Anyone who is familiar with Iranian strategic culture know very well that it dose not work. The clear answer to pressure in Iranian strategic culture is resistance.
5-Work with anyone who holds power. The western countries lost many opportunities because they thought that if this or that person comes to power in Iran, the situation will be different. For two reasons this is not correct. First, the main problem between Iran and the west in general and the US in particular, is on what is regarded in Iran as a matter of national interests, regardless of who holds power or even the kind of political system. Second, different political groups have always had their share of influence during the past three decades and will continue to have. It has created a kind of consensus behind Iran’s foreign policy.
6-Do not demonize some and praise others. Double standard policies have led to loss of confidence toward the west among most of the people in the Middle East. Some in the US and the EU think that so called “moderates and liberals“ have more confidence toward the west. It’s not true. What did the West do with Late Prime Minister Mosaddegh10 ? He came back with empty hand from a long trip to Washington to solve the crisis over Nationalization of Iranian oil industry with England. And latter on was replaced with a dictatorship. He was not a “hardliner“. What did the West do with former president Khatami from 1996 to 2004? They even did not sell passenger air planes to Iran that was justifiable with any western standard and Iran achieved “axis of evil“ for cooperating with the US to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan. Imagine how destructive this behavior was for all those who were supporting improvement of relations with the west. We are also familiar with US “democracy promotion“ in the Middle East from 2002 to 2009. President Bosh promised democracy promotion in 2002 and left Whitehouse while made two trips to Saudi Arabia with in a year, called Egypt as a |strategic ally, sold 50 billion dollars of weapons to the Middle East and left office. “Democracy promotion“ turned to authoritarian protection.
Iranian contribution to peace and stability of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that it is a reliable partner. It is a reliable partner in the field of nuclear technology if it finds a reliable partner. Past has past and its better to think about how to solve current problems and how to prepare the ground for better relations among future generations. “Talks“ to impose more sanctions on Iran are not “constructive“ but in any term destructive.

Nabi Sonboli is researcher of the Institute for political and International Studies (IPIS).


1 . The great powers are so “great and powerful“ that during the last decade have just created great problems for themselves and the world. Iraq, Afghanistan and the situation of the global economy are their main achievements.
2 . Big Powers Say Iran Sanctions Talks "Constructive", By REUTERS, Published: April 14, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2010/04/14/world/international-uk-iran.html?_r=1&scp=10&sq=iran%20sanctions&st=cse
3 . There are so many documented reports on the consequences of sanctions against Iraq. By reviewing them anyone will reach to the conclusion that sanction is soft WMD:
Christian P. Scherrer, (Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute (HPI), Hiroshima City University)
The US-UK Engineered Genocidal Sanctions against Iraq 1990–2003. http://www.icti-e.com/GeneratedItems/Scherrer%20Speech.pdf
Anup Shah, Effects of Iraq Sanctions, (This Page Last Updated Sunday, October 02, 2005). http://www.globalissues.org/print/article/105.
Iraq Sanctions: Humanitarian Implications and Options for the Future, http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/170-sanctions/41947-iraq-sanctions.html
4 . For more information about smart sanction refer to: David Cortright, George A. López, Smart sanctions: targeting economic statecraft. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 276 pp.
5. For more information about Iran Technology achievements see the following links:
http://www.isa.ir/index.php, ,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Space_Agency, http://en.nano.ir/index.php, http://www.isgmit.org/projects-storage/StemCell/stem_cell_iran.pdf
6 . Even it neglects the personal interest of the politicians. “According to a former aide, Kennedy asked him to purchase 1,000 Cuban cigars for Kennedy’s future use immediately before the extended embargo (against Cuba) was to come into effect.“ See “United States embargo against Cuba“, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_embargo_against_Cuba
7 . Chronology of Iran’s Nuclear Programme, 1957-2007 http://oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/oxford_research_group_chronology_irans_nuclear_programme_1957_2007
8 . It is mentioned in the English text of the European Parliament resolution on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=MOTION&reference=B7-2010-0137&format=XML&language=EN
9. For an official account of part of the costs see: Amy Belasco, Specialist in U.S. Defense Policy and Budget, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, September 28, 2009. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf.
10. Peter Jenkins, Rethinking Iran, http://www.ip-global.org/archiv/volumes/volume-11-2010/after-lisbon/rethinking-iran.html
11. Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was heading a democratically elected government from 1951 to 1953. His government was overthrown by a coup d’état supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency on August 19, 1953.

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