The Sanctions Aren't Working

In its failing drive to stop Iran’s nuclear program, the West is only empowering hardliners and pushing the Iranian people to the brink of poverty.

Only days prior to the official commencement of the European Union's embargo on Iranian oil, Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, penned an op-ed in Foreign Policy entitled "Battle Rial," calling again -- as he has repeatedly -- on the United States to step up what he admits is "economic warfare" against Iran and its more than 76 million people. Economic sanctions kill people -- as shown vividly in Iraq -- and may eventually lead to military attacks that will kill even more. This is not "defending democracy," but advocating war and destruction.

In contradiction to the statements by the most senior officials of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to CIA Director David Petraeus, Dubowitz asserts that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. He does not present a shred of evidence or even a reference for his claim, which contravenes even Israeli military and intelligence assessments -- notably that of IDF chief Benny Gantz and the former heads of both Mossad and Shin Bet. Moreover, despite questions over alleged past weapons research, the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence of the diversion of fissile material from Iranian nuclear sites for non-peaceful purposes.

Although Dubowitz's approach has not yet received a ringing endorsement from the Obama administration, many in Congress have been more than ready to lend a sympathetic ear. Dubowitz calls upon the White House to support legislation that would blacklist the entire Iranian energy sector as a "zone of primary proliferation concern." This legislation, in its attempts to link Iran's entire energy sector to its unproven nuclear weapons program, is an unprecedented move that seeks to deliver a knockout blow to Iran by further eroding the revenues obtained through oil sales, which account for some 80 percent of the country's export earnings. It is these funds that allow the country to purchase basic foodstuffs such as wheat and grain to feed the population, preventing millions of households from being plunged into deprivation and hunger. If one wishes to take Dubowitz's argument to its logical extreme, why not just embargo the foodstuffs and medicine directly -- they sustain Iran's nuclear scientists and personnel, after all -- so that they are incapable of furthering the technical development of Iran's nuclear program?

Sanctions were initially supposed to directly target Iran's nuclear program -- and then, as the net widened, military organizations such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and its engineering arm, the Khatam-al-Anbia, along with persistent human rights violators, such as officials of the Ministry of Intelligence. However, the sanctions have turned into an all-encompassing iron fist geared to the destruction of Iran's most important source of revenue, the energy sector. Dubowitz even advocates targeting Iran's automotive industry -- a sector that provides thousands of jobs to ordinary Iranians with no discernible connection to the country's nuclear program.

If Dubowitz's aim is not a diplomatic solution, but rather driving an already angry and restive population to the point of despair so that it rises up against the ruling theocracy, he should plainly state so. But is such a goal even achievable at the present time? The aftermath of Iran's hotly contested -- and by many accounts fraudulent -- 2009 presidential election saw unprecedented protests and the rise of the home-grown Green Movement, which had been in the making for some 20 years. The movement did not realize its goals because the opposition was disorganized and did not have a comprehensive plan for how to proceed. Its leadership and its advisers were quickly rounded up, jailed, and silenced. The opposition, both inside and outside the country, is now in an even weaker state. Still, the opposition inside Iran and a significant portion of the opposition in the diaspora reject foreign intervention and sanctions as a form of collective punishment -- they know their enfeebled position isn't helped by economic warfare and the threat of military attacks.

Although there is little doubt that the hardliners around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's office, the top brass of the IRGC, and leading figures in the Intelligence Ministry will continue to repress opposition to their rule, the constant state of emergency will only benefit them and legitimize their raison d'être in the face of an external enemy. The remaining oil revenues, which flow into the country from oil exports to China, Japan, India, and others, will stay firmly in the hands of the hardliners and the repressive organs of the state. Meanwhile, youth unemployment -- which accounts for 70 percent of unemployment -- will rise higher, and the quality of life of the underprivileged and retirees reliant on government handouts for their meager existence will decline further.

Punitive sanctions have a poor track record in achieving U.S. goals. One should recall the clear failure of comparable sanctions in Cuba as well as Iraq, where they eventually led to a military invasion (based on lies and exaggerations) at great human cost. Although regimes under such sanctions might be weakened in relative terms to other states in the international system, such steps only make them relatively more powerful vis-à-vis their respective populations and civil societies.

In the space of a single article, Dubowitz also illustrates the inexorable slide from crippling sanctions to military conflict. Instead of considering the possibility of engagement, he ends the article by describing what the United States should do if "economic warfare" were unsuccessful: "The president needs to unite the country in moving beyond sanctions and preparing for U.S. military strikes against Iran's nuclear weapons program," he writes.

The very language Dubowitz employs misrepresents the facts and ignores the devastating human cost of the policies he so zealously advocates. Military attacks occur not against a program, but against nuclear facilities -- and they would be a clear violation of international law, in the absence of a U.N. resolution and so long as the Islamic Republic has not attacked any other country. Iran's nuclear technology, moreover, is the result of years of research. It cannot be destroyed by killing a few individuals or razing some nuclear installations to the ground. There is also no such thing as an attack only on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, as it sprawls across the entire country, often close to major population centers. Thus, any attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure will result in thousands of casualties, if not more.

The Iranian government also shares responsibility for tensions having reached this point. But it is not the sole party deserving of blame. And despite unprecedented "economic warfare," it will be able to continue its nuclear program -- albeit at the cost of great suffering of ordinary Iranian people. A more balanced and measured diplomatic strategy is needed if the West is genuinely interested in ensuring Iran's nuclear program will remain peaceful and cease to pose a proliferation risk.

Unparalleled economic warfare and military threats, on the other hand, will not only destroy the prospect of democracy in Iran for many years to come, but will consolidate an already authoritarian regime and plunge one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East into economic destitution and apathy. Dubowitz should ponder the consequences of what he suggests before so cavalierly threatening the lives of millions of Iranians.



Failed Index

Foreign Policy's definition of a failed state raises more questions than it answers and unfairly stigmatizes African countries that are moving in the right direction.

We at Africa Is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can't take it seriously: It's a failed index.

This year, pro forma, almost the entire African continent shows up on the Failed States map in the guiltiest shade of red. The accusation is that with a handful of exceptions, African states are failing in 2012. But what does this tell us? What does it actually mean? Frankly, we have no idea. The index is so flawed in its conception, so incoherent in its structuring criteria, and so misleading in its presentation that from the perspective of those who live or work in those places condemned as failures, it's difficult to receive the ranking as anything more than a predictable annual canard issued from Washington, D.C. against non-Western -- and particularly African -- nations.

The problem is that there are any number of reasons why the Fund for Peace might decide that a state is failing. The Washington-based think tank has a methodology of sorts, but Foreign Policy insists on making the list accessible primarily through a series of "Postcards from Hell." Flipping through the slide show, it's impossible to shrug off the suspicion that the whole affair is a sloppy cocktail of cultural bigotries and liberal-democratic commonplaces -- a faux-empirical sham that packs quite a nasty racialized aftertaste. How do we know if a state is failing or not? Old chestnuts like the rule of law are certainly considered, but also in play are things like economic growth, economic "success," poverty, inequality, corruption, nonstate violence, state violence, human rights abuses, body counts, terrorism, health care, "fragility," political dissent, social divisions, and levels of authoritarianism. And yes, we'll be indexing all of those at once, and more.

The golden principle by which this muddle is to be marshaled oh-so-objectively into a grand spectrum of state failure coefficients is apparently the idea of "stability." But is it really? Well, if you're an Arab Spring country, then yes, it's the "instability" of revolution or popular revolt that has put you in the red this year. Sorry about that. But if you're North Korea (the paradigmatic failed state in the U.S. imagination -- hence why Zimbabwe is often branded "Africa's North Korea"), it's because you're far too stable. If stability is the key to all this, and yet there's an imperative for places like North Korea still to be ranked as failures, then we're in trouble. The cart has long ago overtaken the horse. It would be very difficult indeed to conceive of a more stable form of rule than having power descend smoothly down three generations of the same family over six decades and more (perhaps the Bushes will pull off something like this one day). And, of course, it helps if the names of overweening rulers are spelled correctly: Cameroonian readers of the slide show were startled to discover that they had been led for many years by someone by the name of "Paul Abiye," of whom they had never heard (the spelling has since been corrected).

Clearly, the value of stability to any society is uncertain and subjective. Foreign Policy explains to its readers that Malawi (No. 36 on this year's index) is to be considered a failed state on account of the 19 people killed by police during popular protests against Bingu wa Mutharika's government a year ago. Yet such dissent is evidence of the strength of Malawian civil society and the determination of ordinary Malawians not to get screwed by their government. Malawi is undoubtedly better off for these protests, not worse. What makes the country's listing as a failed state look even sillier is that Malawi recently endured a blissfully peaceful transition of power following Mutharika's sudden death, with constitutional guidelines scrupulously adhered to despite the vested interests of many of the country's ruling class.

One of our readers, the cartographer Jacques Enaudeau, called the index "a developmentalist ode to no-matter-what political stability and linear history." He's right, but as we've seen this stability fetish only applies to those states perceived as non-totalitarian. So how exactly can a democratic country like, say, Nigeria ever hope to satisfy the whimsical judgment of Foreign Policy magazine? The Occupy Nigeria movement that demonstrated against corruption and the removal of the country's fuel subsidy in January was a peaceful mass movement that achieved major gains for working people. It was a thoroughly global protest, with Nigerians in the diaspora taking to the streets of Brussels, London, New York, and Washington, D.C., to demand better governance in Nigeria. Yet these protests are listed on the country's "postcard" alongside terrorist attacks by Boko Haram as equal evidence of Nigeria's "hellishness." For some reason, the postcard neglects to mention the extraordinary spectacle of protesters in Nigerian cities standing guard outside each other's places of worship -- Muslims outside churches, Christians at the doors of mosques -- so that each group could pray without fear of further bombings.

Many of the Postcards from Hell, in fact, simply show popular protests taking place, as though dissent and social demonstrations are themselves signs of state failure. What kind of half-baked political theory is this? Maybe protests are bad for business and troublesome, but for whom exactly? And are we ranking the state or the society? Or both at once?

It baffles us that a U.S. magazine that prides itself on attempting to offer smart, detailed, historically rich analysis of other countries should so rejoice in deliberately rejecting nuance and complexity, offering a single emotive image as the representation of "what living in a failed state looks like." The decision to recycle old photographs (a quick glance indicates that Mozambique's, for example, is from 2010, while Madagascar's is from 2009) suggests that some of these states have stubbornly refused to look sufficiently like failed ones for quite a while. So who loses out when Foreign Policy does something like this? We don't think the answer is as obvious as it might first appear. Another of our readers, Sara Valek, writes, "There is so much more to a country than one photograph. I feel sorry for the people viewing this article who now only have this image in their brains about Mozambique, as opposed to the beauty that I know and love."

The Postcards from Hell also insist that there are no white people in this year's story of state failure -- not even the people of Greece, who are informed -- surely to their incredulity -- that they are living in one of the 40 most stable nations in the world. Egypt is ranked 31st, but nowhere in the account of "just how it came to be that way" is there a mention of the annual $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid (recently reinstated) that continues to complicate attempts to establish parliamentary democracy in the country. European colonialism and the Cold War are scarcely mentioned, yet the reader is somehow expected to form an adequate understanding of the problems faced today by a country like Angola. Is late 20th-century history too far back in the past for Foreign Policy to bother itself with?

Flicking through the Postcards, we can't help wondering what can possibly be gained through this bombastic annual display of geopolitical smugness. Why not choose to be self-critical instead of blithely rubbishing faraway countries every summer?

There will never be a Postcard from Hell that bears a picture of an American street. But what if there were? What would go on there? Might it not apply the very same criteria that condemns much of Africa and lament the deeply corrupt political system that makes legislative progress virtually impossible, inhibits the establishment of truly pluralistic multiparty politics, places the bulk of power in the hands of unaccountable corporations, and offers only the very rich the chance to pursue successful political careers? It might make mention, too, of the baffling lack of affordable public health care, the rapidly growing inequality that can only foment social unrest, or the way in which young men of color continue to be harassed by state police. Maybe we could refer to these police officers as "security forces loyal to the current regime."

Nor must we forget the enduring popularity of capital punishment, the country's ongoing program of extrajudicial detention and killing that proceeds without any substantial accountability, and the nation's vast stockpile of nuclear weapons, which proliferates in shameless contravention of the international commitments made by the United States. America's Postcard might add that, in recent years, its soldiers, humanitarians all, have become notorious around the world for choosing to record footage of the atrocities they commit on mobile devices, in order to share these images with friends and colleagues. It would certainly bemoan the beatings and intimidation meted out to the many Occupy protestors who demonstrated peacefully in American cities last fall. Perhaps the picture could be of the moment last year when a police officer seized a U.C.-Berkeley college professor by the hair and flung her to the ground.