US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained recently why the US refuses to
set a deadline for Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program: “We’re convinced
that we have more time…to do everything we can to bring Iran to a good-faith
negotiation.” Inherent in that statement is the assumption that vigorous
sanctions belatedly adopted by the US and Europe may yet force Iran to change
The UN’s efforts to alter Iraq’s actions have been cited as an
example of a successful sanctions regime. Contrary to what some people now
believe (or have forgotten), sanctions on Iraq were an abject failure. Let’s
review what actually happened when the UN imposed that sanctions regime, and
then apply those lessons to today’s situation.
In August 1990, the
Security Council imposed a near-total financial and trade embargo on Iraq. Eight
months later, following the end of the Gulf War, the Security Council passed an
even tougher resolution calling for the removal of Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction. Iraq was required to cooperate with UNSCOM (the United Nations
Special Commission) on WMD compliance matters.
From 1991 to 2003, the
Security Council passed a series of resolutions reinforcing the restrictions on
Saddam’s government and implementing the “Oil-for-Food” program. That program
allowed Iraq to sell a fixed amount of oil in order to purchase food and
humanitarian supplies for its citizens, thus staving off a potential
The Iraq sanctions regime was far broader and
harsher than anything now being imposed on Iran. The goal of the many Security
Council resolutions was to convince Saddam Hussein to change his brutal internal
policies and terminate his WMD program. But Hussein continued to
brutalize his own people, while refusing to cooperate with the UN’s WMD
Time after time, he stated that he would allow full
inspection of his suspected WMD sites, only to renege on his promise or
interfere with inspections at the last minute.
“Oil-for-Food” was only
partially successful. Hussein ran an illicit oil trade of his own, and
smuggled prohibited items into Iraq. He and his inner circle lived in lavish
palaces as his people suffered torture and privation.
Saddam continued his efforts to obtain materials to advance his WMD program.
Following Operation Iraqi Freedom, the head of the UN’s Iraq Survey Group David
Kay reported the discovery of “dozens of WMD-related program activities” hidden
from the UN. He later testified that Iraq was attempting to produce deadly ricin
“right up to the end.”
Contrary to the generally held belief that no WMDs
were found, Kay observed only that Saddam had not produced large-scale
stockpiles of WMD.
Similar to today’s efforts vis-a-vis Iran, Russia,
China and, to a lesser degree, other Security Council members, hindered
successful enforcement of Iraqi sanctions. After more than a decade during which
Iraq continued to play its cat-and-mouse game, it was clear that the tough Iraq
sanctions were failing.
Continuing to enforce the ever weakening
sanctions regime was no longer an option. Keeping sanctions in place would have
resulted in many more civilian deaths. Had sanctions been lifted without proper
UN verification and enforcement, it was certain that Saddam would fully
reconstitute his WMD programs with potentially disastrous results.
was the impetus for the Second Gulf War.
Fast-forward to today Sanctions
are predicated on the assumption that leaders will make “rational” decisions
based on economic calculations. They will recognize that it is in their own best
interest to accept the demands of the outside world in order to avoid isolation
and economic deterioration.
Iran’s leaders have so far failed to react
according to Western concepts of rationality. Iran’s treatment of IAEA
inspectors is a disturbing echo of Hussein’s actions. Similar to Hussein, Iran’s
leaders have little incentive to cooperate. They may feel that acceding to
external demands would be a sign of weakness and thus hasten their
For them, sanctions are only a temporary inconvenience. They
probably assume that once they have achieved their objective of developing
nuclear weapons, Iran’s position as a regional power will be strengthened, and
the world will be forced to lift the sanctions.
Combine all of this with
their radical religious beliefs – Iran is a superior society; martyrdom is the
desired course for establishing a worldwide caliphate through the coming of the
Mahdi – and Iran’s leaders are acting “rationally” within their own non-Western
frame of reference.
Iraq is a perfect example of the futility of
sanctions when there is a disconnect between a people’s suffering and their
leaders’ value system and lack of compassion. With this historical precedent, it
is hard to conclude that the weaker and more porous sanctions imposed on Iran
will cause that country to capitulate anytime soon.
We all hope that Iran
can be convinced to halt its apparently inexorable drive toward nuclear armament
without the need for military action. However, in light of the UN’s experience
with Iraq, it would seem that even a much more robust series of sanctions on
Iran may be a futile exercise at this late date.
Let’s be clear: The
choice is not between maintaining the status quo and dealing with the aftermath
of a military strike. The choice is between stopping Iran now (even if that
requires military action) and facing a nuclear armed Iran later
Delaying other concerted action while waiting for sanctions to
succeed could be a deadly mistake.
The writer is a former US diplomat. He
was directly involved in enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq and in implementing
the “Oil-for-Food” program.