Economic Sanctions Will Not (And Cannot) Work In Iran.

The aftermath of the “1st Gulf War” of the early 1990s was the first time I remember hearing the phrase “Economic Sanctions”, which were to be used against the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, with the intention of pressurising the then dictator, Saddam Hussein into cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. At that time I was in my early teens with a still highly idealised and polarised world view, the cold war with its threat of nuclear oblivion was still fresh in the collective memory and the modern financial superpowers of China, India and their smaller neighbours were still thought of as stagnant economic backwaters. The continued dominance of Western industrial imperialism seemed unstoppable, communism had fallen in almost all of Eastern Europe and the devastating military power of NATO had just been in evidence. It seemed to us that the only way to power and success was by working with the West, that fighting was futile and could only postpone the inevitable fall. The political opinion of the time (having just witnessed the events following the fall of the Berlin Wall) was that large-scale military conflict would be no longer necessary, that external political pressure and internal civil unrest would be the modern, safer (for the West) and cheaper (for the West) way to wage regime changing wars. It was on this background that economic sanctions were proposed and agreed against Iraq. Knowing that the Iraqi economy was (and still is) highly dependant on the export of crude oil to the Western powers who would be implementing the sanctions, the collective opinion in the UN was that Saddam Hussein would be forced to cooperate with the weapons inspectors or risk losing power completely in a violet coup d’état brought on by the impoverishment of the civilian population.

As we know, this is not how it happened.

While it is unquestionably true that economic sanctions on a country such as Iraq in the 1990s can and often do have the effect of reducing their power on the world stage by crushing the financial muscle available to them and driving their economic development backwards, the supposition that this is probable or even likely to lead to inevitable rebellion and regime change is at best questionable. Crippling the economy of a rebel state may make its leader unpopular with its population but the financial losses imposed upon Iraq led to a humanitarian crises with a disputed but huge number of children and vulnerable adults dying or being severely affected by malnutrition and a lack of both clean water and medical supplies (between 200,000 and 500,000 child deaths), the per capita yearly income in Iraq fell from over $3,500 to less than $450 in the years leading up to 1996. The outside world was not unaffected by the suffering caused by the sanctions and various UN resolutions were passed allowing Iraq to trade crude oil in return for humanitarian aid. However, while much aid was bought using this system, it all had to come through centralised government agencies, further strengthening the dictator’s control over his people and making civil unrest (let alone open rebellion) nearly impossible. Without Saddam Hussein’s blessing, the populace of many areas would have starved to death, they were simply not strong enough to even consider a popular uprising. The sanctions had not just failed in their attempts to get Iraq to tow the line and cooperate with the UN resolutions, they had caused millions of ordinary Iraqis pain, misery and suffering, while further reinforcing the vice like grip Saddam held over the country.

Now the new fear, as perceived by Western governments, is the proliferation of nuclear armaments spreading to Iran, a volatile theocracy openly opposed to “Western Imperialism” and the state of Israel (also a nuclear power). This opposition is not without cause, the Western backed Shah of Iran was openly put in place following the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry by a democratically elected government. The Shah went on to be increasingly autocratic and brutal becoming ever more unpopular until the islamic revolution of 1979. Western governments have almost all been unilaterally opposed to the government in Tehran since this time and mistrust of Western governmental policy has become embedded in the political structure of the country. Despite Iran’s protestations that their nuclear programme is wholly for civilian purposes, it is widely recognised throughout the international community that the level of uranium enrichment being pursued could easily result in the manufacture of weaponry; combined with the use of Iran’s domestically produced missiles, a large number of countries could theoretically become vulnerable to attack.

However, despite the continued hostility of the Iranian government towards the West, when asked (in confidence) many citizens will express a belief in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US. The general population in large Iranian cities like Tehran live highly modernised lifestyles, compared to the states surrounding them (due mostly to revenues provided rom state oil exports) and have much more political and expressive freedom than most islamic states (partly due to the differences between Shiite & Sunni attitudes to discussion). Contrast this to Pakistan (a current nuclear power) where scenes of celebration following the September-11-2001 attacks were broadcast worldwide, large sections of the country are under tribal rule and corruption is rife throughout both the military and political establishments. It is however, a democracy which, although unstable, has a stated (though not always actioned) aim of aiding Western military forces in their pursuit of the Taliban and other religious fundamentalist and fanatical organisations hostile to Western involvement in Islamic politics.

We have recently seen various military maneuvers in and around the strait of Hormuz both by the Iranians demonstrating that they could close it and the Americans showing that they could keep it open. Given the stated Iranian military aim of deterrent rather than engagement and the American desire to sustain stability in the region I don’t believe that this posturing and flexing of muscles is likely to come to anything more than slightly heightened tensions between neighbours. The idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used as any more than almost all have them have ever been used for (a deterrent) I find equally implausible. The Iranian government may be theocratic but they are not suicidal. Neither are they genocidal, whatever you might hear in loaded news reports. The only overtly aggressive statement to come out of Tehran in recent years was the highly dubious Farsi translation of a speech by President Ahmadinejad when he appeared to predict the elimination of the Israeli government, although he did not say how or when. Given that the president is not the “Supreme Ruler” and the verbally belligerent yet reluctantly pragmatic approach normally taken by such states in foreign affairs, a nuclear Iran could well be a stabilising influence on the region to counterbalance the military and diplomatic power of Israel.

It should also not be forgotten that nearly 60% of all Iran’s exports go to China, India, Japan and South Korea, not Europe and North America. With these figures set to rise as the Eastern economies grow more rapidly than their Western counterparts, stricter restriction on oil exports to the West will most likely result in strengthening bonds between Iran and the Far East, further loosening any controlling influence Western governments may feel they have in the region.

It is my belief that only by engaging with states like Iran on an equal diplomatic basis rather than treating them like errant teenagers needing to be ostracised from the community can stability, peace and equitable, sustainable development be achieved, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. I do not mean in a Kissinger “Realpolitik”, condescending way just to deal with them because one has to. Treating another’s opinions or values as equal and as valid as yours is fundamental to a belief in democracy and free speech. Persuasion and debate through the use of evidence are the only tools needed here, not intimidation and coercion with threats of force. We should not be surprised if others are offended and defend themselves aggressively if they perceive us as aggressors trying to change them forcibly, if we listen we’ll probably see that most of us want the same things in life, just wrapped up a little differently.

Thanks for Reading

Rowan

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2 Responses to Economic Sanctions Will Not (And Cannot) Work In Iran.

  1. Lucas Rokosz says:

    Will Iran have an implosion to the likes of Syria or Egypt?

    • Most Iranians would describe themselves as ‘Persian’ rather than the ‘Arab’ tag most Western people would give them (re-‘Arab Spring). Iran has a recent history of giving its people a little more freedom than their neighbours and just enough to stop large-scale civil unrest. There were protests after the last ‘elections’ but these were nothing compares to the countries you mentioned and small concessions towards political freedoms were made. Iran seems to be inching toward democracy rather than being thrown in the deep end like Egypt or Libya. 2 years ago many would have said they were the most democratic state in the Middle East and they’re still more democratic than most, I think that will continue.

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