The Urgency of Sanctions

Waiting for tough sanctions prolongs human suffering in Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) cannot act quick enough to thumb its nose at punitive measures, claiming they are illegitimate and will be ineffective. Tuesday was no exception. Just as the U.S. finally convinced Russia and China to pass a fourth round of sanctions, the IRI promptly and audaciously dismissed the initiative, stating that it would not be approved by the rest of the United Nations Security Council and even if passed, it would not hinder the Iranian economy.

Maybe the IRI didn’t expect to be cornered this soon after making its tactful move Monday, agreeing to ship some of its uranium to Turkey to be enriched and returned as fuel for Iran’s nuclear energy plants. The operative word being ‘some,’ and the obvious motive being to show a glimmer of good faith before serious energy and gasoline sanctions are imposed.

The new proposal reiterates the demand that Iran halt its nuclear program and further prohibits any entity from selling to or aiding Iran in its nuclear weapons ambitions. It also imposes certain travel bans and requires that all Iranian cargo ships are searched before touching Iran’s shore.

Although most sanction proponents were hoping for a hard hit on Iran’s gasoline and energy industry, this fourth round of sanctions, according to the U.S., is meant to further isolate the IRI and to influence other nations to implement strict measures against Iran on their own.

While a step in the right direction, will these particular sanctions deter the IRI from going on with their proliferation? No. Does the U.S. believe it will? No. So why is the U.S. treading so lightly? Once again, we are brought back to the drawing board on sanctions. The longer we take to impose those that will genuinely cripple the Iranian regime, the more tricks the IRI will pull out of its hat to buy time and to reposition international forces.

Over the course of the last year, Iranian politicians, scholars and pundits have drastically evolved their opinions, mirroring a quickly changing and ever more urgent political backdrop.  Last June, when Iranians courageously took to the streets in the aftermath of a fraudulent election, they were filled with hope that change was within their grasp. More recently, as Iranians prepare for the one year anniversary of those demonstrations, they are going forward more cautiously and entirely cognizant that it will take more than large-scale protests to change their bitter fate under this regime.

The central topic at the time of the first demonstrations was the disenchantment of millions of Iranians whose rights were being trampled on by a rogue and hardline regime. Now at center stage, is the IRI’s nuclear weapons ambition and how quickly it will fulfill those objectives.

Likewise, talk of sanctions divided scholars, politicians, Iranians and Iranian Americans who feared the repercussion on innocent civilians. Slowly, those fears were replaced by an understanding that sanctions might be the only way to stop this relentless regime.

As the IRI further isolated itself from the international community with outlandish rhetoric and flippant demeanor, we found that a stronger and louder majority from the left, right and center began standing in support of powerful, yet targeted sanctions.

And the question, as always, was how the people of Iran will be affected. Why punish the citizens? Particularly in the case of Iran, we know the answer plain and simple. The people of Iran differ greatly with their government.  Yet by pushing for sanctions, are we allowing the Iranian people to bear the reprimands of their government; the same government many of them oppose.

The argument against sanctions on the people of Iran hinges on the premise that they will further strain an already suffering economy in a country where unemployment has been in the double digits for years. Many of those who can feed their families have to work a handful of menial jobs to do so.  The rule of thumb for many in the case of Iran has been to refrain from taking any action that would hurt the people, economically or otherwise.

It is dangerous, however, to make such a categorical statement given Iran’s precarious state. It then becomes necessary to carefully examine all the other avenues that the Iranian people have taken and are willing to take, having risked both their lives and livelihoods quite often.

Take, for example, the 2009 demonstrations. If we calculate the number of Iranians who were out on the streets throughout this year, missing work and cutting back on productivity for days at a time and then multiply this number by the number of man hours that were lost over the course of the year, it amounts to a huge economic loss for the Iranian economy. Yet, many opponents of sanctions, both in Iran and abroad, advocated protests and large-scale organized protests. It is interesting how economic loss was never an issue then.

Juxtapose this number with the irreplaceable and invaluable individuals who were killed, detained, beaten and tortured over the last 30 years. When one considers how the Iranians were willing to send their children out onto the streets the day after the well-known young woman Neda was shot and killed and hundreds of their friends and neighbors were secretly, yet brutally rounded up by the Revolutionary Guard and Basiji militia men, then the argument against sanctions for the protection of the Iranian people becomes entirely moot.

The debate among Iran scholars and political and social activists at this point should not focus on whether sanctions are appropriate to impose, but rather how they should be implemented, and what type of restrictions would best choke this regime while having the most nominal effect on Iranians.

The best recipe for sanctions requires five essential ingredients. First, they should be properly implemented. This means that they are targeted and meant to pinpoint the regime and its extensions only. Next, they should be clearly defined. As we are seeing in the case of Iran, a lack of boundaries and barriers leaves room for games and evading authority. Third, sanctions should be linked to a particular behavior change or resolution of specific issues.  Very clearly, sanctions should be tied to a particular action or behavior and made very clear to the regime. Next, it should be explained well to the Iranian people. What the United States has missed time and again in the case of Iran is a transparent and honest dialogue with the Iranian people. Where sanctions could be misconstrued as action against the people of Iran, the United States and all cosignatories should make it abundantly clear to the people of Iran that the sanctions are meant against its defiant government. Lastly, the sanctions should be lifted after conditions are met, meaning it needs to be a punishment that leaves room for repentance.

Another important point that is scarcely mentioned in talks about sanctions is that they are not meant solely to deter the Iranian regime from fulfilling its nuclear weapons ambitions. They can and should also be used in human rights cases to deter the regime from stoning, hanging and executing innocent civilians such as the five innocent Iranians arrested during the demonstrations and executed on Mother’s Day.

Over the past decade, targeted and action-specific sanctions have been successful in deterring the Islamic Republic. Two instances that come to mind are the freeing of the 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz in 1999 who were being tried for espionage. The campaign to halt the use of cranes for hangings was successful in stopping public executions for over three years.

Even if we were to give credence to the economic argument against sanctions, there are various ways in which they can be implemented to help the Iranian people without costing them anything. There can be sanctions on diplomats and their families. There can be a restriction on the regime’s communication worldwide, which would prevent them from making sanctimonious speeches at the United Nations every few months or so. The personal accounts of government officials and their families should be frozen. Which raises an interesting question: if these individuals want so badly to hold onto Iran’s government and care for its economic state, then why don’t they invest their money into the country?

Government officials should also feel pressure when they travel, when they invest abroad, and when they send their children abroad. Often, we see the children of the Iranian officials studying at top ranked American universities, while the regime is busy ruining the lives of their compatriots back home. Maybe if these officials felt the same pressures other Iranians did, their own children and families could pressure them to let up their chokehold on the country.

So, despite the IRI’s three-decade-long crusade to steer the country elsewhere, the argument should not be whether or not to impose sanctions. The Iranian people are hurting more in the interim with a hard-line regime which turns a blind eye to its citizens’ needs while duping the international community to cover its illicit nuclear weapons agenda. The argument should only focus on how we can hit hardest at the regime’s lifeline through crippling regulations on their energy and gasoline sectors, for the sake of the Iranians and everyone else.