Features | Security | Central Asia

How Sanctions Can Work With Iran

Augmenting sanctions could still help deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, says Michael Rubin on the sidelines of the Valdai conference in Malta. But don’t rule out force yet.

How Sanctions Can Work With Iran
Credit: Daniella Zalcman

You wrote recently that you felt the sanctions on Iran were having some kind of success. What kind of effects are we seeing?

Certainly the sanctions are having two impacts—one is economic, the second is on reputation. Economically, the greatest damage to Iran’s economy is actually done by Iranian mismanagement. The economic sanctions, however, amplify that, and create some degree of pressure—not enough to change Iranian behaviour, but enough to raise the cost of their behaviour.

Reputation wise, Iran and Iranians look back on their legacy as being one of a great empire. They are one of the few countries in the world that have a near contiguous history going back more than 2000 years, the others being in Asia. Now the fact that Iran is being targeted by both multilateral and unilateral sanctions upsets ordinary Iranians. For example, when I lived in Iran, an Iranian who participated in the Islamic revolution talked to me about how when she got married she and her husband got on a motorcycle and drove all the way to Paris without needing to get visas in advance. They look at themselves as a country that was once on par with European countries like Spain and Portugal, and they see themselves now following headlong into the third world. That creates a great deal of friction between ordinary Iranians and their government because ordinary Iranians tend to blame their government for the isolation, rather than other countries.

You’ve also talked about ‘augmenting’ sanctions. What do you have in mind?

There are a couple of different ways to augment sanctions. First of all, one of the philosophical debates the international community needs to resolve is whether to target sanctions at the top, or more broadly so they impact more Iranians. Since the Iraq sanctions, there’s been a backlash against broad sanctions, and so with Iran we’ve something called targeted sanctions, which the current UN Security Council has been targeting towards proliferators and people involved in the nuclear programme.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The drawback this approach is that ordinary Iranians don’t feel it. The argument for broader based sanctions is that when ordinary Iranians feel the sanctions more, this tends to create discord, which translates itself into the establishment of grassroots movements. So that’s one issue.

With regards to sanctions themselves, while the international community has been targeting banks, for example, the Iranians have been able to play a shell game. Generally speaking, they’re able to create new banks faster than we’re able to designate banks as subject to sanctions. What I would argue is that we need to sanction much more the Iranian central bank, employ similar provisions of both US domestic law and international law that went into sanctioning North Korea, specifically that went into sanctioning the bank in Macau. The US Treasury has also refrained from using the provisions of the Patriot Act against Iran, even though these would arguably add more pressure.

And there are other psychological means of affecting the Iranian people. There could be a ban on passenger air travel into Iran. International air travel isn’t a right, and anyway the Iranians can always take a bus out through Turkey (although, let’s be honest, it would take about 24 hours before they could get to an airport). That’s a way to make life a little bit more inconvenient, but at the same time not hurt ordinary Iranians.

The third issue which we have to consider is the timing of sanctions. Many people argue for having dialogue as the strategy of first resort. And there’s nothing wrong with engagement—Nixon went to China, Reagan met Gorbachev in Reykjavik. However, sometime over the past 20 years we’ve shifted from a strategic framework where we’ve coupled diplomatic engagement with sanctions to a place where we sequence our strategies, where we try diplomacy first, and if that doesn’t work then we consider sanctions. Arguably we need to stop sequencing and understand that diplomatic, informational, military and economic strategies all tend to amplify each other when they come together.

So you don’t have a problem, in principle, with the US engaging with Iran?

I have no problem in general with engagement, but I have two problems with the way it’s handled with Iran. One is with regard to the idea that too many American and European diplomats have that engagement has no cost. Engagement certainly does have a cost, in terms of symbolism and in terms of adversary momentum—is Iran negotiating sincerely or running down the clock?

The second issue is with regard to with whom we engage. Many people talk about different Iranian power centres. The fact of the matter is, however, that we shouldn’t be engaging with people who don’t have power over the decision making in Iran. It’s not enough to say ‘Well, we engaged with this diplomat, but the Revolutionary Guard did this, so we can’t blame Iran for its lack of sincerity’. Either we’re engaging with the wrong people, or Iran is being insincere. What I do notice is that while the Americans seem to celebrate meeting with the under secretary of the foreign ministry, when the president of Malawi goes to Iran, he meets with the Supreme Leader.

So I would argue that we shouldn’t be engaging until we’re able to engage with the power holders in Iran, and that is the office of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. The diplomats are meaningless.

Do you see any circumstances under which a military option might be necessary for dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

I’d never rule out a military option. A military strategy isn’t just bombing. Containment is a military strategy and deterrence is a military strategy. Preparing for a containment regime or a deterrence regime also implicitly creates pressure, which can raise the cost of Iran’s nuclear programme and facilitate diplomacy.

Bombing Iran would have both benefits and costs. The question then is obviously whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I don’t think they do. The benefits of any military strike on Iran would be delaying Iran’s nuclear programme. The costs, however, would be uniting the Iranian people around the government. The other cost would be justifying Iran’s nuclear programme and the military aspects of it.

Ultimately, we also need to recognize that while a military strike on Iran would delay the nuclear programme, it wouldn’t eliminate the programme. The question then for Western policymakers would be what policy do you implement during the delay which a military strike has bought? For example, if you have set back Iran’s nuclear programme three years, what policies are you going to implement in those three years that you’re not implementing now? If you don’t have a consensus answer for that, then you’re simply using the armed forces to kick the can down the road, and that’s unfair to the armed forces.

What would the impact of a nuclear Iran be on the region?

There would certainly be some consequences to Iran developing nuclear weapons and I’d say there are three main threat perceptions out there. The Europeans see the threat of Iran developing a nuclear bomb in terms of the vitality of the Non-proliferation Treaty and the vitality of European foreign policy. The fact of the matter is that Iran’s nuclear programme was the first foreign policy issue involving a problem outside of Europe that the EU took the lead on. So, if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it undercuts the gravity with which people will treat European foreign policy.

For the United States, the main threat is in terms of strategic tenability. The fact of the matter is that Iran with a nuclear weapon would embolden Iran and embolden Iran’s proxies. It would also set the Middle East down a cascade of proliferation. If Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will want it, Egypt has already told us they want it. If Egypt has it, then Libya will want to redevelop it. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

For Israel, it’s seen as an existential threat. Now I don’t think that Iran is going to take a nuclear weapon and drop it on Israel. But the Israelis have a point, however, when people say that Iran isn’t suicidal and they respond: ‘Look, what happens if you have a situation like you did in Romania, when in the last days of the Ceausescu regime, the security services had turned and basically everyone knew that within a day or two the regime was going to end’. If you had an analogous situation in Iran, where the Islamic Republic was about to fall, what is to stop the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp from launching a nuclear weapon at Israel in pursuit of its ideological goals, knowing that the regime is going to be gone the next day anyway and that the world isn’t going to retaliate against a country that has just had regime change? That’s where the idea of mutually assured destruction doesn’t hold up.

What concerns me more is what happens domestically in Iran. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s safe to assume that the Revolutionary Guard is going to have control of that nuclear weapon, and more specifically the more ideologically pure and loyal elements of the Revolutionary Guard are going to have control of that weapon.

Now let’s look at the issue of succession. Traditionally, nuclear powers moderate with time when they understand the responsibility of having a nuclear arsenal. In Iran’s case, while the Iranian people might be moderate, if the Revolutionary Guard controls the nuclear arsenal, and if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei* dies, it’s safe to assume that the Revolutionary Guard is going to have a veto power over the next Supreme Leader. In this case, instead of creating a cycle of moderation, this would create a cycle of radicalization, which could adversely affect domestic society inside Iran, as well as Iranian behavior toward its neighbours. This is because with the nuclear weapon, Iran would just become increasingly confident.

I’d also argue that what causes war in the Middle East isn’t oil, it’s not shortages of water. What it is, is when one side is over-confident and blunders into a conflict. I worry much less about the United States launching a strike on Iran’s nuclear programme than I do about an overconfident Iran that misjudges a red line and sets us down a cascade into conflict.

How optimistic are you that a solution can be found to the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme?

I’m pessimistic that there’s any country out there that has the will to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Simply put, I don’t see the diplomacy working because I don’t believe Iran is negotiating with sincerity. Second of all, I don’t believe the United States is willing to launch military strikes. And I also don’t believe that Israel has the military capability to launch strikes on Iran.

The worst case scenario would just be the uncertainty if Iran develops a breakout capability, but doesn’t break out. If Iran, in other words, puts itself in a similar position as Japan is now. This isn’t to draw moral equivalency between Japan and Iran—there is no moral equivalency between the two because Japan is a responsible government. In contrast, what worries the United States especially is the ideology that underpins the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the co-author of ‘Eternal Iran’ (Palgrave, 2005) and ‘Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami’s Iran’ (2001).


*Thank you to those readers who pointed out our mis-type of Khomenei, who was of course Iran’s first Supreme Leader.