Can sanctions change Iran’s mind?

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.

Iran's Sajil 2 missile 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's Sajil 2 missile 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 course.
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 humanitarian catastrophe.
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 inspectors.
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.
Unquestionably, 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.
This 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 downfall.
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 on.
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.