Like the fairy-tale Big Bad Wolf, the United States and the European Union continue to huff and puff and say that economic sanctions will blow Iran’s house down.
Referring to new U.S sanctions that can be levied against third-party purchasers of Iranian oil and to the ban, imposed July 1, by the EU against Iranian exports to Europe, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “Iran’s leaders will understand even more fully the urgency of the choice they face.” Stretching for an historical analogy, the New York Times compared oil sanctions against Iran to the pre-World War II U.S. embargo on oil shipments to Japan, adding, in case anyone forgot, that in response Japan opted to “strike before they were weakened.”
But while the new sanctions will inflict a significant measure of pain against Iran’s already struggling economy, virtually no one in Washington believes that they will compel Iran to make unilateral concessions at the bargaining table over its nuclear enrichment program. And, experts say, Iran can get along fine for the foreseeable future with a little belt-tightening.
“Consider the Iranian economy, which is nowhere near collapse,” wrote Hossein Mousavian, former spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team and the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis, A Memoir, and Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst in Tehran, in The National Interest. “The reality is not that ‘Iran is on the verge of a choice between having a nuclear program or an economy,’ as Cliff Kupchan, a senior analyst on the Middle East at the Eurasia Group, insists. [The] Islamic Republic will still rake in an estimated $40 billion from oil this year. That’s roughly twice as much as when Mohammad Khatami was president a decade ago.”
The only way sanctions against Iran make sense is not as policy, but politics.
Since 2009, when the first round of talks stalled between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the so-called P5+1, the Obama administration has used economic sanctions as a way of kicking the can down the road. Rather than make real concessions to Tehran, including recognition of Iran’s right to enrich, if Iran accept air-tight international oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the White House used the sanctions as a way of deflecting pressure from neoconservatives, hawks, and right-wing backers of Israel in the United States who demanded confrontation with Iran. Inside the administration, few if any officials actually believe that sanctions will work as intended, namely, to force Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions that demand a stop to enrichment. Since 2009, President Obama has opposed, deflected, and tried to weaken sanctions legislation enacted by Congress. Were sanctions too draconian, and were the United States to move overtly toward military confrontation with Iran, the P5+1 coalition would instantly shatter and both Moscow and Beijing would align more closely with Tehran.