But the sanctions are unlikely to destabilize the regime and bring in more liberal leaders. In fact, the sanctions are directly benefiting the officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard because they control the Iranian black market. As Sune Engel Rasmussen points out in a recent Foreign Policy dispatch from Tehran, IRGC officers are amassing "great wealth through smuggled goods, including everything from alcohol and cigarettes to flat-screen televisions." Moreover, the regime has placed price controls on many staples and basic services and is thus responsible for the continuing affordability of bread, meat, cooking oil, and transport. An Iranian activist summed it up well, "People are becoming more dependent on the government for everything. Why would they rebel against this government?"
The sanctions are also helping China obtain oil at below-market prices. Beijing has basically exploited Iran's isolation to drive a harder bargain, pressuring Iran into cheaper prices and even carrying out barter deals with substandard goods. Although the sanctions are creating great hardships for the weakest in Iranian society -- the poor, the sick, and the elderly -- they have not yet brought about any official change in Iran's nuclear calculus. Perversely, they are punishing and disempowering precisely the people who oppose the current government. As Omid Tofighian sums up, "the politically progressive and intellectually enlightened section of Iranian society, that until recently were regularly travelling abroad for work and higher education, have experienced a devastating blow to their plans. Their contribution to the potential for change has been hindered....Weakening this particular group of Iranian society has highly detrimental consequences for the democratic process."
So sanctions have helped China get cheap oil, enriched the officers of Iranian revolutionary guards, solidified the population's dependence on the regime, and hurt the middle class, which could bring about true democratic reform.
Given this reality, it is puzzling that some have called for more sanctions. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) recently released a slick new report calling for even more sanctions as a way to extract nuclear concessions from the Islamic republic. A worse set of recommendations could not have come at a worse time -- just as nuclear negotiations between Iran and the global powers are due to resume post-U.S. elections. As Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and a former top State Department analyst on proliferation issues, notes, "The report does not offer a realistic formula for negotiating a satisfactory agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear programme. It would require Iran to capitulate on virtually all fronts....Some of the measures it suggests would be likely to disrupt P5+1 unity...and the maximalist requirements it cites for an agreement could convince Tehran that the U.S. objective is regime change, rather than full compliance with its obligations to the IAEA."
The bizarre aspect of the call for increasing pressure is that the best intelligence concludes that no nuclear weapons work is going on in Iran right now. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has confirmed that he has "a high level of confidence" that no such work is going on now. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also weighed in: "Are they [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No." And Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb, adding, "I don't believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran."
Of course, it would be better if Iran stopped stockpiling 20 percent enriched uranium -- even though such activity is legal under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The problem with the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program is not that there aren't enough sanctions already in place, but that there is no clear roadmap of what Iran needs to do with its nuclear program in order to have even the existing sanctions removed. In fact, the Iranian regime may be continuing 20 percent enrichment as a bargaining chip to exchange for getting rid of sanctions. What is needed is for the P5+1 to spell out in crystal clear terms what realistic steps Iran needs to take with its nuclear program to have the existing sanctions lifted. Some reasonable scenarios have been provided by the Arms Control Association.
As Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, and Anthony Zinni suggest, "the time is ripe for a deal and wrong for more sanctions." The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recently released an expert report advising the IAEA to stop obsessing over gaining access to Parchin -- it is advice worth heeding. And the P5+1 ought to adopt a more mature approach: instead of looking at what more they can do to Iran, they ought to focus on how to advance a deal by offering Iran a roadmap out of the sanctions. The "all sticks, no carrots" approach has been an abysmal failure; all that it has achieved so far is building up Iran's enriched uranium stockpile. Jim Walsh of MIT summed it up well recently: "If the nuclear [related] activities were in the past, I don't care. It's dead, and it's regretful, but let's do a deal with Iran that moves forward." After his inauguration yesterday, President Obama should launch a fresh, constructive approach to Iran that cuts through the thicket of sanctions confusion sown by Congress..