This week, I’ll be writing a series on Groundswell covering some of the many reasons why we must ramp up our efforts to oppose sanctions.
Yesterday, I explained that the proposed sanctions on Iran would hurt the Iranian people rather than the regime. Some people would argue that this can still work to weaken the regime internally, because the Iranian people will direct their rage at the government and pressure them to change their behavior. This misconception is probably fueled even more by the current scenes of Iranians expressing anger and outrage at the regime and taking to the streets. But Iranians will respond differently to external threats, especially when sanctions are likely to undermine the very success they are trying to achieve.
Sanctions tend to fail as a diplomatic tool for the same reason aerial bombing usually fails. As Israel is again discovering in Lebanon, the infliction of indiscriminate suffering tends to turn a populace against the proximate cause of its devastation, not the underlying causes. People who live in hermit states like North Korea, Burma, and Cuba already suffer from global isolation. Fed on a diet of propaganda, they don’t know what’s happening inside their borders or outside of them. By increasing their seclusion, sanctions make it easier for dictators to blame external enemies for a country’s suffering. And because sanctions make a country’s material deprivation significantly worse, they paradoxically make it less likely that the oppressed will throw off their chains.
When it comes to the main reason for the US sanctions, Iran’s nuclear program, Iranians are hardly likely to pressure their government to stop it in the face of US pressure. The enrichment program has widespread support, as Patrick Disney of NIAC notes in the Huffington Post:
What’s more, even if the Iranian people were to demand that the government halt its enrichment program–which they wouldn’t, since the vast majority of Iranians support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology–does anyone think that the government will actually go along with it? Has Tehran been particularly responsive to the wishes of its citizens lately? No, in fact, that is what these people are fighting for each and every day: to have their voices heard.
There is a long history of mistrust between the United States and Iran, and most Iranians I talked to during my trip to Iran in May were very skeptical that the US government would shift its attitude toward Iran. Whatever their problems with their government, Iranians are unlikely to turn against their own country when threatened from abroad. The most striking example of this I encountered was in conversation with the cab driver who took us from Imam Khomeini Airport to our hotel in Tehran. The cab driver had every reason to loathe the Iranian regime. His brother was one of thousands of political prisoners murdered by the regime at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. When the leader of our delegation told him we were visiting from the US to promote peace between our countries, he responded by saying that what we are doing is very important because he hates the current regime, but he would pick up a gun to defend it if Iran was threatened. I saw this strong sense of loyalty and protectiveness often; veterans of the devastating Iran-Iraq War described it to me as a “defensive Holy War.” The support for nuclear energy has a lot of basis in this national pride and resentment at having a double standard applied to Iran regarding its legal right under the Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. I certainly did not meet anyone who approved of the way the United States has spoken to or about Iran in the past, with its history of hostility and saber-rattling.
As I mentioned yesterday, the many Iranian activists have clearly stated that they want the West to stand up for the people of Iran, and to avoid enacting sanctions or pursuing military action. The US has no excuse for claiming that they weren’t aware of the potential impacts of these sanctions or for pretending that they are supporting the Iranian people with this approach. After making this issue plain, it’s clear that the general population of Iran is going to blame the United States for causing them harm, and damaging their movement for greater freedoms at a critical juncture.