24 September, 2009


I was set off this evening by a prolonged discussion on US economic sanctions on Iran. Now my knowledge of the intricacies of a sanction policy is minimal. I have a broad idea of the intended effects and reasons for their being imposed in the first place.

I'm wondering what some of my learned colleagues have to say about the matter.

From what I can tell, they are not having the regime-changing effect they were intended to have. The economic sanctions are meant (in my mind), to influence the rulers of a country toward certain actions by holding out to them that it will harm their position if they don't comply. Their people, we are meant to see, will so vociferously assail their leaders to bend and accept change that they will have no choice. Or at least that's a possible scenario.

On the other hand, what seems to be happening in Iran is that Ahmadinejad and others are using the sanctions as an example of how the US is meddling and imposing its imperialistic will on them, while simultaneously the sanctions affect not the ruling class, but cause economic stress to those already most strapped within Iranian society.

Please, clarify for me if I'm drawing unfair or improper inferences.


Elliot said...

I think you hit the main controversies over the effectiveness of sanctions. I would make a couple points, however, relating to how context-dependent evaluations of sanctions should be.

The first consideration is how universal the sanctions are. I mean that in two ways. First, the range of activities they cover. And two, the percentage of the international community that signs on to the sanctions.

In the case of Iran, the sanctions currently in place are not very universal in either sense. They don't cover the full sweep of the Iranian economy (oil being the elephant in the room) and instead pinpoint certain things such as arms, aircraft parts, and certain types of financial transactions. Second, they are not universally applied by all countries - the US maintains very strict sanctions, but the lack of cooperation of other major countries, especially Russia and China, dilute their effect. This is also the dynamic in Cuba, where the US maintains a total embargo but Cuba gets trade and investment from other parts of the world.

A second major set of considerations is how you expect sanctions to interact with the domestic situation in the country. If the country has some sort of democratic institutions which can channel people's demands - I count Iran in this category, but not Cuba - then leaders may feel pressure to avoid sanctions. Along similar lines, you need to look at composition of the ruling regime. Is it united? - then sanctions will have less effect. (Cuba) Or is the ruling regime deeply divided between various factions? - this is Iran, as we are currently seeing, and sanctions, if done right, may help to empower the reformists.

A third set of factors revolves around the economic structure of the country. The very smart analyst Vali Nasr (he was just on the daily show) argues that the defining struggle for Middle Eastern democracy is to foster a middle class that is invested in free trade and capitalism, and thus in cooperation, rather than confrontation, with the rest of the world. (This is not a new idea - its basically the same as the idea that the rise of the urban bourgeoisie was the key to the breakdown of feudalism and monarchy in Europe.)

Anyway, the idea is that a country with a large middle class with ties to the outside world and a desire for a middle class lifestyle, with cable, cell phones, and internet, will react more strongly to sanctions and will do more to avoid them. Again, this is Iran and not Cuba.

Elliot said...

Based on those factors, it would seem that Iran is relatively well positioned to be influenced by sanctions. And I think that's proven to be the case. Before Ahmadinejad, Iran's two previous presidents came from the reformist wing of the ruling class whose explicit goal was to seek conciliation with the West so as to reduce the onerous burden of sanctions. This led to cooperation with us in Afghanistan, progress in limiting and monitoring Iran's nuclear program, and a lifting of some of the harshest sanctions.

Unfortunately, the combination of Bush's blundering (Axis of evil, rejection of continued negotiations) and domestic factors (mainly the grand Ayatollah getting fed up with the reformists and backing Ahmedi) led to the hard-liners retaking the presidency and the resumption of harsher sanctions.

But look at the results - the regime, largely due mobilization of that middle class and the tensions inherent in the ruling regime, is the weakest its ever been, and may be on the cusp of a liberalization unseen since 1979. This is partly because Ahmedi mismanaged the country and then stole an election. But its partly because reformists, backed by a large portion of the populace, are sick of being ostracized by the international community and want normalized relations. And the election of Obama, and Obama's determination to create a united front with our allies and antagonists both, seems to have convinced many in Iran that sanctions are not primarily the fault of the imperialist US but in fact primarily the fault of their own leadership.

What's more, the fact that Obama seems to have, just this week, brought Russia on board for increased sanctions, should be causing a lot of worry in Tehran, and it will strengthen the hands of moderates who are arguing that Iran should accept limits on their nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations.

Cuba is a good opposite example. A united leadership that feels very little pressure from below has been very successful at placing US sanctions in a (largely true) narrative of US imperialism that has allowed them to avoid any responsibility for the deleterious effects. Meanwhile, a closed Cuba slows the creation of a trade-based middle class that could eventually become invested in better relations with the US. That embargo needed to end 20 years ago.