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The policy cul-de-sac of the Iran sanctions

In the Boston Review, Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi take a long look at the economic sanctions literature and conclude that the ever-more-stringent sanctions regime won't lead to a democratic transition in Iran. One can quibble with their review (they don't cite Nikolai Marinov's work, for example), but they do state the current state of play on Iran rather cleanly:

The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.

That sums up the situation rather neatly -- the problem is that these goals are somewhat incompatible. If the aim if to negotiate a deal on the nuclear program, then Iran's regime has to be persuaded that the United States is not trying to topple the regime. If the administration keeps up the ambiguity regarding the purpose of sanctions, then Iran's current regime has zero incentive to negotiate. In that case, the only way sanctions work is via regime collapse.

Based on Robert Worth's front-pager in the New York Times on the effect of sanctions in Tehran, however, it looks like the negotiation option might already be closed off. The effect of the sanctions put in place (and the ones that will kick in over the summer) are, well, a mixed bag:

Already, the last round of sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank has begun inflicting unprecedented damage on Iran’s private sector, traders and analysts say, making it so hard to transfer money abroad that even affluent businessmen are sometimes forced to board planes carrying suitcases full of American dollars.

Yet this economic burden is falling largely on the middle class, raising the prospect of more resentment against the West and complicating the effort to deter Iran’s nuclear program -- a central priority for the Obama administration in this election year…

The rising economic panic has illustrated -- and possibly intensified -- the bitter divisions within Iran’s political elite. A number of insiders, including members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have begun openly criticizing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent weeks. One of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides indirectly accused Ayatollah Khamenei of needlessly antagonizing the West in ways that pushed down the rial’s value, the latest sign of a rift between the president and the supreme leader that is helping to define the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March 2.

“They criticize Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader by name now; it’s not like before,” said Javad, the 45-year-old manager of a travel agency in north Tehran…

Ordinary Iranians complain that the sanctions are hurting them, while those at the top are unscathed, or even benefit. Many wealthy Iranians made huge profits in recent weeks by buying dollars at the government rate (available to insiders) and then selling them for almost twice as many rials on the soaring black market. Some analysts and opposition political figures contend that Mr. Ahmadinejad deliberately worsened the currency crisis so that his cronies could generate profits this way…

Many Iranians are also skeptical about the Western preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program. “The economic pressure will not push Iran to a nuclear settlement,” said Kayhan Barzegar, the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, who has taught in the United States. “The nuclear file is a nationalistic issue; it’s too late for Iran to backtrack. Domestic politics will react negatively to any negotiation — candidates in the elections will say: you sold the nuclear program!”…

[T]he businessman also noted that when Iran last suffered similar privations, in the 1980s, the economy was far smaller, and the revolutionary zeal for self-sacrifice far greater. Iran’s leadership was also far more unified than it is today.

“The question is, when this panic translates into a real diminution in the living standard, will Iranians be willing to take it?” the businessman said. “That’s when these guys will really be in trouble.”

The above report suggests that the sanctions themselves have effectively eliminated the more modest goal of negotiating on the nuclear program. The primary effect of the sanctions to date has been to exacerbated divisions within Iran's regime. Because of these divisons, there's no point to negotiation -- at this point, the United States could ever be sure that the entire Iranian state could credibly commit to any bargain (for advocates of negotiation, it should be noted that this was already a problem; the sanctions just bring it into high relief). The economic effect of the sanctions has also accentuated Iran's nationalist pride in the nuclear program among the middle class.

It's still possible for the sanctions to work. Those that are imposed multilaterally tend to take a longer time to have a policy effect. The target state will first try to break the multilateral coalition apart -- and only after that policy fails will they consider concessions. Recent reportage suggest that Iran was not expecting this kind of multilateral pressure -- and so it's possible that Tehran will reconsider.

That said, the sanctions policy is pushing the United States into a policy cul-de-sac where the only way out is through regime change. In the abstract, that might sound great, but in reality, pushing for that option could be both messy and expensive.

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