See more photos of my 2009 trip to Iran here.
Amidst the constant political posturing on Iran, most people at least acknowledge that measures should be taken to minimize the impact of sanctions on the Iranian people. People around the world were moved and inspired to see Iranians bravely fighting for their rights, and most at least gave lip service to the idea of trying to shield them from actions meant to target their repressive government (though the vast majority in Congress betrayed this ideal when voting to pass the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act). In an illogical defense of the broad unilateral sanctions in The Hill, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA-27) removes any veneer of concern for the Iranian population:
Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.
I suppose Rep. Sherman gets points for honesty for not even pretending to care about the impact many have warned about. Not surprisingly, his explanation for this callous stance is deeply flawed:
In the 1980s, the U.S. and other countries enacted tough sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Those sanctions did not just hit the elite white population; they were not “targeted.” They hit the South African economy and hit it hard. The very people we were trying to help — the non-white population — were hurt. But the sanctions created enough economic dislocation and unrest that they literally drove a regime to provide for its own destruction through democratic elections – elections guaranteed to bring the ANC to power. Ultimately, Nelson Mandela thanked us for the sanctions.
Sherman leaves out the fact that the African National Congress called on the international community and the UN to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime in 1980. In contrast, dissidents in Iran, from Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have explicitly stated that anything other than very targeted sanctions would be harmful to their cause. That “ultimately” seems to imply that even if these brave and dedicated activists, who are far more qualified to predict the outcome of this policy in their country, don’t understand how helpful Congress’ harsh sanctions are, they’ll come around.
My favorite part of the op-ed is when Sherman dismisses the mountain of evidence that sanctions against Iran are not going to work in eliciting positive changes in the Iranian regime’s behavior.
Critics also claim that there is no guarantee that they will work. No one can guarantee anything, especially in foreign policy. But these sanctions provide the best hope for convincing Iran’s government that it literally risks its own existence by continuing its nuclear program.
If this policy falls flat on its face, don’t blame Brad Sherman. No one can guarantee anything, so what’s the point of looking at decades of history of failure with sanctions or the opinions of people who actually know a thing or two about Iranian history, culture and politics. No Iran expert worth his or her salt will say that these kinds of sanctions are our “best hope”, but they will give the regime fodder for cracking down on internal dissent and provide opportunities for the Iranian government to benefit economically. Rather than recognizing that the US needs to pursue serious diplomacy and offer incentives as opposed to just making demands, Sherman is gearing up to introduce legislation to further turn the screws on Iran. Given his “nothing is guaranteed” standard, I’m afraid to see what that might look like.
Sherman’s quackery apparently knows no bounds when it comes to Iran. In 2000, when the Clinton administration allowed imports of Iranian carpets, pistachios and caviar (“the stuff that we don’t need and they couldn’t sell anywhere else”) he went to the House floor to dramatically declare “There’s blood in the caviar!” (whose blood I’m not sure, since he doesn’t seem too concerned about what happens to Iranians). Apparently, Brad Sherman lives in a world where Iranian carpets pose a dire threat and crazy Iranians are about to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the US in a bale of marijuana.
It’s tempting to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of Sherman’s Iran paranoia, but I’m afraid to say he’s not alone and certainly not outside the mainstream of Congress. (A congressional staffer once told me he wakes up every morning afraid Iran is going to nuke the US). Hyperventilating about the threat from Iran is driving counterproductive policies and an increased level of chatter about the feasibility of a military attack, which any reasonable person knows would be disastrous. The debate around Iran policy in this country is lacking in substance and rationality, and as the Iran hawks ramp up their rhetoric, we must make sure more reasonable and credible voices are heard.