Strategic Sanctions

‘Sanctions on Iran should be designed and enhanced to bring about regime change’

Global Governance Iran Obama Points East & West US Politics

When the White House invited a small group of senior journalists for a background briefing on Iran in early August, few expected the President to be the speaker. Barack Obama sparked excitement when he stated after a lengthy and healthy expression of scepticism about Iran’s readiness to reach a compromise, that the door was still open to diplomacy.

Some of those present assumed immediately that President Obama was offering them a scoop about a new diplomatic initiative. Yet the US is not about to offer a new incentives package to Iran. Nor is there any novelty in this approach — the diplomatic incentives that Washington, the four other members of the UN Security Council and Germany offered Tehran in June 2008 not only remain on the table but have now been incorporated in the text of UN Resolution 1929 and are part of the EU sanctions legislation. The door always remained open for a return to negotiations — and there’s the rub. 

The international community has reached a crossroads regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions — one where it finally agrees more pressure is needed if Tehran is to be prevented from crossing the nuclear finish line. Yet, despite the scepticism, the international community is ready to embark on a new diplomatic journey if Iran signals its readiness to talk — though its record in the last eight years shows that Tehran uses diplomacy as a stalling tactic. President Obama’s diplomatic efforts have no doubt paid off, to his credit. The EU has also shown global leadership — and unprecedented courage — in passing tough sanctions for the first time since 2003. 

But no matter how broad and sustained, sanctions have a major flaw. They are aimed at persuading the Iranian regime to return to negotiations to convince the mullahs to change their nuclear policy. The international community would be content if the mullahs’ regime survived, as long as it renounced its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

This is remarkably naive. Years of negotiations accompanied by sanctions have failed to yield results. Iran has crossed every red line and ignored every ultimatum set by the international community. There is no reason to believe that it would be different now, especially given the internal fragility of the regime. Shaken by an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy and challenged from within both by democratic opposition and disgruntled elements of the clerical and revolutionary power structure, the regime is hardly in a mood to show moderation. Especially in such circumstances, concessions are a sign of weakness. One year after Iran’s rigged elections and the wave of repression that followed, Western nations should finally recognise that their best allies against the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic are the Iranian people and their aspiration to live without fear. Sanctions should therefore have two purposes: to delay Iran’s nuclear programme by sabotaging its procurement efforts and to drive a wedge between the regime and the people.

This should not be such an arduous task. Years of incompetent economic mismanagement and growing repression have created an already unbridgeable gap between the regime and its people. Sanctions should aim to broaden that gap even further. Economic pressure must increase the already widespread discontent and help turn economic dissatisfaction into political mobilisation. Sanctions, therefore, should be designed and enhanced to serve a different purpose — not so much a change of behaviour as a change of regime.

Critics will no doubt say that tougher economic measures could harm ordinary Iranians and drive them into the arms of the regime. They forget how deadly the regime’s embrace is. Iranians, by contrast, know it all too well. Despite four years of international sanctions, they rarely blame the West for their economic distress. As for the opposition, their tepid condemnation of sanctions was coupled by an indictment of the regime’s policies as the main cause of Iranian isolation. If accompanied by a robust public diplomacy effort designed to keep the Iranian public informed, sanctions can further alienate them from their rulers.

With this in mind, the West must ratchet up the pressure even further while speaking directly to the Iranian people about what its goals are — that ultimately, its long-term strategic interest of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is best served by the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The guiding principle of Western policy should not be more pointless negotiations with Iran’s ruthless rulers, but the restoration of the fundamental freedoms of ordinary Iranians.