National Security

The Rial World

No, the Iran sanctions are not working.

In a recent Foreign Policy article, Alireza Nader argued that U.S. sanctions on Iran have played an important role in preventing the country from acquiring nuclear weapons. To the contrary, because of their wording, the sanctions have been -- and still are -- a roadblock to resolving the nuclear issue. As they bite further, and with the value of the rial dropping precipitously, the sanctions are simply shifting the focus of anger in the Iranian street from the regime toward the United States.

As Nader correctly states, "the Iranian regime has not made any major concessions on the nuclear program." Because the sanctions were (ostensibly) designed to influence Iran's nuclear calculus, it is safe to say that they have objectively failed. There is a reason for this: The legislative text of the sanctions goes way beyond Iran's nuclear program and, in fact, provides a disincentive for Iran to cooperate with the United States.

As I have noted before, the sanctions can only be lifted after the U.S. president certifies to Congress "that the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary."

Although these are certainly laudable goals, they complicate nuclear negotiations by establishing conditions that have nothing to do with the nuclear program. In fact, many U.S. allies could not satisfy all these conditions: The Bahraini and Saudi governments also crack down heavily on political protests, yet those countries remain unsanctioned by Washington.

So even if Iran were to completely shutter its nuclear program tomorrow, it would still be sanctioned by the United States. But if it's going to be sanctioned no matter what it does with its nuclear program, why should Tehran make any nuclear concessions at all?

In short, the sanctions are not working because they are not designed to work. Rather than being restricted to nuclear issues, they appear to be crafted to put more and more "crippling" pressure on the populace to -- one assumes -- agitate them to demand regime change.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement that the sanctions "will impose crippling economic pressure on the Iranian regime in order to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and other dangerous policies."

Nothing of the sort is happening. The nuclear-enrichment program is humming along (under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards), and other unnamed "dangerous policies" -- such as, perhaps, Iranian support of the Syrian regime -- also continue apace.

It is perfectly clear to the average Iranian who is to blame for her recent misery. In the past few months, as more and more of the sanctions have started biting, the ire of the Iranian people has increasingly shifted away from the regime's long-term incompetence, repression, and corruption and toward the United States and the West. Although the sanctions technically exempt food and medicine, sanctions on the financial system prevent Iranians from being able to purchase these items from abroad. Many critical medicines and humanitarian goods simply cannot be purchased by hospitals and other entities within Iran, leading to deadly shortages. Ahmad Ghavidel, the head of the Iranian Hemophilia Society, told the Washington Post recently that "This is a blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people by countries which claim they care about human rights."

On Oct. 3, Iran's currency hit a record low of roughly 36,000 rials to the U.S. dollar -- a year ago the rate was about 13,000 rials to the dollar. Although the currency nosedive is certainly putting pressure on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is far from clear whether his political downfall would bring about any meaningful change in Iran's nuclear calculus: Most (officially vetted) alternative candidates also support Iran's pursuit of nonmilitary nuclear power, as does the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The president may be under threat, but the regime is not. Protesters have made clear their gripe is with Ahmadinejad and not with the Islamic system. In fact, for the moment, the regime appears delighted that Ahmadinejad is serving as a convenient scapegoat for Iran's economic woes.

It is possible that an even more reactionary candidate will be elected in the 2013 Iranian presidential election precisely because of the draconian sanctions. When Russia and Argentina went through a similar economic meltdown about a decade ago, their people voted in more nationalist leaders: Vladimir Putin and Néstor Kirchner. And even the U.S.-managed regime change in Iraq has resulted in an authoritarian and pro-Iran government there. Right now, the incipient economic meltdown in Iran, triggered by the sanctions, is simply providing more excuses for the regime to crack down on protests, jam foreign news, and block the Internet.

Washington needs to make crystal clear exactly what Iran needs to do with its nuclear program in order for the sanctions to be lifted; otherwise, as with Iraq, it may stumble into another needless, expensive, and counterproductive war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The language of the current sanctions is distressingly unprofessional and vague on nuclear issues. In fact, the latest round of congressional posturing on Iran, in the form of Senate Joint Resolution 41, declares that "the United States Government and the governments of other responsible countries have a vital interest in working together to prevent the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." It is unclear what Congress means by a "nuclear weapons capability" -- by some measures, Iran already has such a capability.

Any country with a fully developed civilian nuclear sector has the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Brazil and Argentina have a nuclear weapons capability. But, just as you cannot get a speeding ticket for owning a sports car that has the capability to go 120 miles per hour, it is not illicit for countries to have the capability to build a nuclear weapon. What is illicit is for Iran to divert its safeguarded enriched-uranium stockpile to any military uses -- something the country has never been accused of doing.

In fact, according to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran's stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas actually declined to 91.4 kg from the 101 kg reported in May. This decrease in Iran's "enrich-able" 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile is due to the conversion of some UF6 into metallic fuel-plates for the Tehran Research Reactor. Reconversion back to gaseous form is difficult and time-consuming. Whatever nuclear weaponization "red lines" one cares to draw, Iran is actually retreating from them.

Far from being on a mad dash to weaponize, Iran has repeatedly signaled its willingness to compromise on the nuclear-enrichment issue; the U.S. administration should consider meeting the Iranians halfway by lifting some sanctions. By rigidly refusing to ease sanctions, Washington is offering no meaningful reciprocity, derailing the possibility of a deal with Tehran and essentially helping Iran enrich more uranium.

Ironically, the dysfunctional nature of the sanctions could be seen by some congressional hawks as a benefit. As with Iraq a decade ago, they could say that sanctions have not "worked" and thus justify moving on to the next, and last, resort: war.

ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

Rebuttal

Too Cool

Bjorn Lomborg missed the mark in his attacks on a new report about the costs of climate change.

Contrary to alarming suggestions by Bjørn Lomborg in his article for Foreign Policy, DARA's recent Climate Vulnerability Monitor report is not a house of cards hinging on "one change in the model, namely including the impact from heat on labor productivity." Our report is a comprehensively updated assessment of the harm to human society and current economic development if we fail to act on climate change. It is anchored in latest mainly peer-reviewed studies and was developed in conjunction with detailed field research in Africa and Asia as well as successive review phases by more than 50 leading experts.

Lomborg asserts that the solutions the report promotes will be costly, but the whole point is to look at climate change through the lens of minimizing losses and maximizing gains in human, economic and environmental terms. As its title -- "A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet" -- suggests, the report is actually cold-minded good news, not "unfounded alarmism and panic." The costs of action may be "huge," but so are the benefits: We can deal with climate change, save millions of human lives, help slow rapid environmental degradation, rescue lagging progress on poverty reduction, and actually make money in the process.

The main difference between our study and earlier research comes from a revised treatment of the consequences of climate change versus its causes. The distinction helps to explain what is wrong with Lomborg's questioning of our estimations of costs and deaths due to climate change.

Most previous research of this kind has considered the impacts of climate change together with an effect called "carbon fertilization," meaning the stimulus of plant growth due to high atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. CO2 is a natural ingredient in plant photosynthesis, and as its levels rise many scientists expect crop yields to improve in certain places.

The thing is, what we call "the climate" only means average weather. Climate change is simply a change in average weather. Crucially, atmospheric CO2 and carbon fertilization are not consequences or impacts of shifts in the weather. They relate instead to the causes of climate change. Failing to tackle climate change will lead to both temperature and CO2 rising in tandem. So it makes perfect sense to account for carbon fertilization when considering the future impacts of climate change, even when it is not one. In fact, on the basis of current research, we estimated that by 2030, carbon fertilization could be generating hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits every single year. For these reasons, prominent experts rightly consider carbon fertilization entirely relevant for the global warming debate.

But we make the case that many other effects that are similarly tied to the causes of climate change (but not weather-related) are of equal relevance to the global warming debate and have traditionally been overlooked.

Take the world's oceans for instance, which absorb one third of all CO2 released. Doing so makes them more acidic and harms marine life -- especially coral, molluscs, and shellfish that struggle to access key nutrients as water pH changes. This is not a weather-related impact, but it is an important cost to the fisheries sector. Another example worth considering is rising levels of ozone in smog at ground level that. Unlike CO2, smog is toxic for plant growth and triggers further losses.

Our simple suggestion is that either you take all relevant impacts tied to the causes of climate change into account, or you take none of them. Our report separates out both issues to enable independent examination. Is this deliberately misleading, as Lomborg suggests? No, it is clarification: Considering only carbon fertilization without other non-weather effects only distorts the true costs of climate change. It is one of the key reasons why many experts have concluded that overall climate change may not be much of a cost to the world economy in the decades ahead and it is a central pillar of the economic arguments for taking less action to address the problem, such as those espoused by Lomborg.

When the impacts of climate change (we simplify as "climate") and the effects linked to its causes (simplified as "carbon") are taken into account, we see that the economic costs are already severe. In fact, they  already dwarf the latest estimations of the costs of tackling climate change. Taking action, moreover, will minimize both climate and carbon losses going forwards.

This is not just an economic issue: CO2 might help plants, but air pollution leads to widespread illness and death -- pollution caused by the same fuels that are the mainstay of the world's current and projected energy systems. Despite Lomborg's assertion that air pollution is "almost entirely unrelated to global warming," burning fossil fuels is well understood as the chief source of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Less well known is that the burning of other types of fuels, such as wood and crop waste, also warms the planet. Their incomplete combustion in indoor cooking stoves -- also tremendously harmful for human health -- or field burning, generates soot and other pollutants that have been estimated as the second-greatest contributors (after CO2) to current global warming, because they absorb radiation and darken glaciers and snow.

Pollutants like soot don't stay in the air for very long, but when generated everyday they continuously warm the planet. The U.S. and Canadian governments together with others have made a priority of addressing them as a complement to tackling conventional gases like CO2. Such action has the potential to lessen the short-term increase in warming at low cost with important -- even immediate -- health, development, and environmental benefits. This is the impetus behind such promising new efforts as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

Lomborg rightly points out that some of the journalists who covered the report misattributed our air pollution and other carbon economy death estimates to climate change. In accordance with findings of the actual public health community that differ from Lomborg's own views, global warming does indeed lead to large-scale mortality and illness. But mortality linked to the causes of climate change (not caused by it) are an order of magnitude greater in scale. Why should we ignore them?

Regardless, the mass mortality and illness outlined in our report are indeed contingent with climate change just like carbon fertilization is. If you reduce hazardous air pollution, it is difficult to not also reduce warming emissions. A world economy shifting to a more environmentally sound, safer, healthier, and lower carbon-intensity energy footing would progressively eliminate these health hazards, with some benefits reaped right away.

Returning to labor productivity, Lomborg himself edited a study in 2010 on the costs and benefits of climate change that recognized labor productivity as a potentially large unaccounted cost. Lomborg's own institution also publishes other work from one of the authors of the study we relied upon regarding labor. Relying on a single study for a single indicator is commonplace for this type of research -- supporting research is referred to in the explanatory texts of the report.

Labor productivity is the most significant of our 34 indicators, but substantially downgrading its scale would not alter our report's conclusions.

Deliberately adapting to climate-change impacts, including measures to reduce occupational heat stress, can be cost-effective, meaning less costly than if no actions are taken. Our estimated 2030 costs represent a scenario in which no serious deliberate action is taken, and could be lower if, unlike today, the situation is the reverse. But adapting is not always cheap: Expanding air conditioning as a response to indoor worker stress is highly costly and only generates more pollution, for instance. We actually have a separate indicator to measure the cost of simply maintaining, as the planet warms, similar comfort levels for indoor zones that are already climate controlled.

Spending billions of dollars a year painting cities white, as Lomborg suggested, will not make a dent in heat-driven labor productivity losses since the problem is of greatest concern for outdoor workers not in cities. Nor can farmers just displace work into the relatively cooler dark of night, because visibility also contributes to productivity.

Faced with the pervasive ramifications of a hotter planet, quick fixes like those touted by Lomborg would be about as effective as arranging deck chairs on the Titanic -- as one speaker at our report's launch noted.

Two decades without adequate action on climate change have already locked in many of the estimated impacts for 2030 outlined in our report, but addressing, correcting and acting on this knowledge will increase prosperity now. Why wait?

MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images