Into The Fray: Sanctions and centrifuges

As a Holocaust survivor, commenting on the lessons of WWII, said: ‘When somebody says they want to kill you, you should believe them.’

Ayatollahs centrifuge 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ayatollahs centrifuge 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
To remain at peace when you should be going to war may be often very dangerous. The tyrant city... is a standing menace to all.... Let us attack and subdue her, that we may ourselves live safely for the future. – Thucydides, (circa 460–395 BCE)
No government, if it regards war as inevitable even if it does not want it, would be so foolish as to wait for the moment which is most convenient for the enemy – Otto von Bismarck (1815–1890)
If you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival – Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965)
I was prompted to devote this week’s column once again to Iran’s nuclear endeavor by a rather irate email I received, chiding me over the article I wrote last week, in which I warned that without a credible military threat to reinforce them, sanctions were unlikely to induce the decision-making echelons in Tehran to “stop the centrifuges.”
Heady headlines
My somewhat irascible electronic interlocutor urged me to read a Sunday Times report on the situation in Iran, which announced that “as hardship bites... [a] collapsing currency, soaring food prices fueled by UN sanctions have brought panic and dissent to the streets,” and counseled that I exercise “a little patience before we send our boys to war.”
Indeed, it was not only the Sunday Times that devoted headlines to the impact the economic strictures were having on commercial activity in the country.
For example, The New York Times heralded: “A New Sign of Distress as Iran’s Currency Falls.... The rial has fallen in value by about 40 percent over the past week.”
In a similar vein, The Washington Post proclaimed: “Tensions over Iran’s currency spark clashes between protesters, security forces.”
The British Telegraph headline declared: “Iran sanctions bite as protests hit Tehran streets,” having one day previously pronounced that “Iranian currency plummets to record low as US sanctions take hold.”
Under the headline, “US touts success of Iranian sanctions,” United Press International conveyed an upbeat White House assessment that “US sanctions imposed on Iran are some of the toughest in history and they’re having a ‘profound impact’ on Tehran.” It, too, referred to the steep devaluation of the Iranian currency, noting: “The Iranian rial collapsed last week, sending protesters into the streets.”
Deceptive, dangerous disconnect
I must confess feeling a little disconcerted by my cyber-correspondent’s critique.
It seemed that I had failed – at least partially – in conveying what was supposed to be the core-concept of the column: There is no clear causal link – neither conceptual nor empirical – between the socioeconomic suffering that sanctions inflict on the general population, on the one hand, and their ability to influence the decision-making echelons in highly authoritarian regimes, on the other.
Thus on their own – without being backed by a credible threat of martial might – there is, at best, a tenuous relationship between the public pain sanctions impose and the willingness of the ayatollahs to stop the centrifuges.
Let me try again – with the help of others.
A recent opinion piece in The Guardian (a source I seldom find suitable for corroborative citations) elucidates the point at hand.
Authored by Hassan Hakimian of the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and aptly titled “Iran’s economy is hurting – yet sanctions are not a nuclear deterrent,” it admirably articulates the causal disconnect between the applied stimulus (sanctions) and the desired effect (idle centrifuges):
“The underlying logic of these extrapolations is that ‘if sanctions are hurting, they must be working .’ But this overlooks a number of important issues.... [A]lthough Iranian sanctions are harsh, other economies have withstood harsher economic pressures in the past and there is no shortage of regimes under sanctions which have survived without changing their course – North Korea, Zimbabwe and Cuba, to name but a few.”
Moreover, it correctly identifies that:
“despite growing economic pain, there seems as yet no overriding reason why the Iranian regime might back down on its nuclear stance.... As with so many sanctions in recent history, the sanctions against Iran are clearly proving capable of destabilizing the economy and inflicting pain on ordinary people, while the prospect of achieving their stated objective of nuclear nonproliferation in the region remains elusive.”
Disconnect (cont.)
Similar skepticism was expressed by the Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner. While acknowledging that the impact of the sanctions is “horrible for the Iranian people,” he concedes: “Whether it will have the desired effect in toppling the regime and halting nuclear advancement is another matter altogether. Much of the experience with sanctions is that they don’t work[!].”
His colleague Colin Freeman put this across in somewhat more concrete and colorful terms:
“It has been pretty clear from the experience in Iraq, Burma and elsewhere, that sanctions don’t do much.... Saddam Hussein and his family, for example, never stopped living in obscene luxury during a decade of sanctions on Iraq. Nor have sanctions ever much cramped the style of Burma’s golf playing generals, or Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF clan. After all, when you’re part of the ruling clique in a dictatorship, there are always ways to keep yourself comfortable.”
The puzzling thing about the prevalence of sanctions and the fallacious belief in their efficacy is that the glaring flaw in their operational rationale has been known for decades. Indeed, in my previous column I referred to a 1998 paper published by Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, which clearly identified this, stating:
“Economic sanctions are blunt instruments that wreak havoc with an economy. They especially afflict a country’s ordinary citizens, often without affecting the ruling elite. Sanctions have not undermined the despotic rulers in Fidel Castro’s Cuba or Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, both of which have endured tight US economic sanctions [for decades].”
Time of the essence
This ability of beleaguered authoritarian regimes to resist compliance with sanctions over extended periods is a matter of acute – arguably, existential – significance for Israel.
For it, the question of when sanctions can induce compliance is just as crucial as the question of whether they can induce it at all.
The goals of the sanctions against Iran – at least from Israel’s point of view –are sharply different from the sanctions that have been imposed in most – if not all – other cases, both in terms of the specificity of their scope and the urgency of their schedule.
In most other cases, sanctions’ objectives have been more broadly defined, typically relating to the general inequities of an incumbent regime, and largely open-ended with regard to their duration.
For Israel, the goal must be clearly defined.
It is not regime reform or even regime change, although that might be a positive development, depending on the successor regime.
Rather, the goal is more narrowly defined as the verifiable termination of Tehran’s nuclear program.
Likewise, for Israel, the timetable for sanctions has a clear cut-off date: The weaponization of the enriched uranium that Iran has acquired. Once Iran develops the ability to assemble a deliverable (whether by missile or otherwise) nuclear weapon, continued sanctions are largely irrelevant – or at least their relevance will be dramatically degraded.
After all, if the West displays little stomach for confronting Iran militarily, before it acquires weaponized nuclear capability, there is little reason to believe that it will have the stomach to do so once it has. But more important, the Iranian regime will have every reason to believe it won’t.
Bearing this in mind, surely only the foolish or the uninformed would believe that the regime in Tehran would recoil from inflicting economic hardship on its populace for an extended period – while forcibly suppressing public discontent –if that gave it time to complete the weaponization of its program
Interpreting Iranian intentions
Ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 address to 4,000 students at an event titled “The World Without Zionism,” and the dramatic New York Times headline it generated: (“Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says”), a fierce debate, more scurrilous than scholarly, has raged over whether the Iranian regime really harbors genocidal intentions toward Israel.
For example a Washington Post headline asked, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map.’” Prof. Stephen Walt, co-author of the infamous The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, opined – unsurprisingly – that “I don’t think he is inciting to genocide.”
Well, here is a short “anthology” of declarations of Iranian intent/inclination from senior Iranian political and military leaders spanning over a decade, which might help resolve the issue.
 Ahmadinejad, at the “World without Zionism” event: “Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury... Our dear Imam [Ruhollah Khomeini] ordered that this Jerusalem-occupying regime [Israel] must be erased from the page of time. This was a very wise statement... Soon this stain of disgrace will be cleaned from the garment of the world of Islam, and this is attainable.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini successor : “Iran’s that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region... the perpetual subject of Iran is the elimination of Israel from the region.”
Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: “The employment of even one atomic bomb inside Israel will wipe it off the face of the earth, but would only do damage to the Islamic World. It is not unreasonable to consider this possibility.”
Maj.-Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards : “With God’s help the time has come for the Zionist regime’s death sentence.”
Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards : “In the near future, we will witness the destruction of the cancerous microbe Israel.”
When they say they want to kill you...
These citations comprise a minute sampling of a plethora of public pronouncements conveying Tehran’s preference for a world without Israel, and its resolve to implement that preference. Indeed, no matter what controversy may rage among Western pundits as to the subtle nuances of the Farsi language, there seems little confusion on the ground in Iran.
As if to dispel any lingering ambiguity that non-Farsi-speaking folk may still entertain, government entities have erected billboards and draped banners on official buildings, military buses and barracks, and even on Shahab missiles in parades, bearing English translations of slogans that proclaim: “Israel must be uprooted and wiped off the pages of history” or “Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world” or “Israel must be wiped off the map.”
Accordingly, it would clearly be wildly imprudent to evade the commonsense interpretations of these statements of intent, or to ignore the wise counsel of the unnamed Holocaust survivor, who, when commenting on the lessons he had learned from his experiences during World War II,  advised: “When somebody says they want to kill you, you should believe them.”
Ostrich Syndrome
In a recent Jerusalem Post opinion piece, Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, warned that in dealing with Iran, the West was suffering from what he designated the “Ostrich Syndrome” in refusing to recognize reality.
He described, boldly and honestly, the situation that Western hesitancy has allowed to arise: “The domestic suffering caused by the economic sanctions has not changed the regime nuclear policy. At this late stage...nothing will stop the nuclear program except for the use of force.”
Sadly, Inbar is right.
Unless faced with the “cold steel” of a credible threat of kinetic force, there is little reason to believe Iran will relinquish its goal – and every reason to believe it will not.
As for my anxious email critic who prompted this column, perhaps the most important question – both ethically and operationally – would be: If a military clash is unavoidable, when would it be preferable to prepare to “send our boys to war”? Before the Iranians acquire a nuclear weapon? Or after?
And if we can’t be sure that we can get our timing exactly right, so as to attack at the very last moment, when should we “send our boys to war”?
Just a little too early? Or just a little too late?
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.