The Strategic and Moral Bankruptcy of U.S. Sanctions Policy Toward Iran

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

The Obama administration and other sanctions advocates claim that U.S.-instigated sanctions against the Islamic Republic are meant to achieve a range of objectives (changing Iran’s “nuclear calculus,” getting Iran “back to the negotiating table” and making it “negotiate in good faith,” strengthening the “credibility and leverage” of “pro-engagement camps” inside Iran, preventing military action by the United States and Israel, “political signaling” at home and abroad, and maintaining “unity” within the P5+1).

Appearing on HuffPost Live earlier this month, Flynt pointed outthat, in fact, U.S.-instigated sanctions against Iran are achieving virtually none of the objectives sanctions proponents claim they are intended to achieve: “Other than, possibly, sanctions as a stand-in for military action by the United States or Israel, other than that I don’t think the sanctions are working to achieve any of the objectives.”

More pointedly, Flynt took on the analytic conclusions and policy recommendations regarding U.S. sanctions policy advanced by National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi — who also appeared on the HuffPost Live segment with Flynt — and a recent NIAC study on sanctions.

We have long criticized NIAC’s position on sanctions — favoring “targeted sanctions” against the Iranian government while claiming to oppose broad-based sanctions that impact ordinary Iranians — as an intellectually incoherent and politically hypocritical posture that enables the Obama administration’s illegal, morally offensive, and strategically counter-productive sanctions policy.

Now Parsi and NIAC are trying to help the administration figure out how to make this illegal, morally offensive, and strategically counter-productive policy more “effective.”

More specifically, Flynt pushed back against Parsi’s argument that, while sanctions have put “a tremendous amount of pressure on [the Iranian] economy,” they have not “changed the calculus of the Tehran regime” on the nuclear issue, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has a “strong and dominant narrative” that “depicts the West as being invariably against Iran’s development, that this is actually not about the nuclear program — it’s about the West trying to subdue Iran, making it dependent.”

For sanctions to alter Tehran’s nuclear calculus, Parsi holds, the Obama administration needs to shape “a countervailing narrative to this.”

Responding to this argument, Flynt notes, “Trita has framed it in terms of the Supreme Leader having a ‘narrative’ about what sanctions say about U.S. intentions toward Iran and that there needs to be some sort of countervailing narrative. In fact, there’s not a countervailing narrative because, in many ways, the Supreme Leader’s narrative about the nuclear issue and about America’s ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic [is] not wrong.

“The Supreme Leader has said, just within the last couple of weeks, if the United States wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, it’s very easy: recognize Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment, stop trying to get them to suspend, stop trying to get them to go to zero enrichment and we can have a nuclear deal.

“But the Obama administration, even though it’s had multiple opportunities to make clear that that’s where it wants to go, refuses to do that. Its stated position is it still wants to get Iran to a full suspension — stop enriching uranium. And as long as that’s the case, there is no countervailing narrative that can be had; the Supreme Leader’s narrative is actually validated.”

Flynt goes on to underscore that “the way the sanctions have been drawn up, and the fact that whereas even just a few years ago, most of them were imposed by executive orders (which are more or less at the discretion of the White House), but now most of the sanctions have been written into law,” belies the proposition that sanctions are somehow intended to promote a diplomatic solution:

“If you actually look at the language in the bills — that these are the conditions Iran would have to meet in order for the President to be able to say ‘we’ve satisfied these conditions and I’m therefore lifting sanctions’ — the Islamic Republic could allow the U.S. government to come in, dismantle every centrifuge in Iran, cart them back to [the U.S. nuclear laboratory at] Oak Ridge (like Qadhafi in Libya did), and there would still not be a legal basis for lifting the sanctions.

“[The Iranians would also] have to stop talking to, dealing with groups like Hizballah and HAMAS, that we want to call terrorist groups, and they basically have to turn themselves into a secular liberal democracy in order to meet our standards on ‘human rights.’ The President can’t lift them, even if the Iranians surrender to him on the nuclear issue. So the idea that this is somehow meant to encourage a diplomatic outcome … that’s just not real.”

With regard to the impact of sanctions, another HuffPost Live panelist — Sune Engel Rasmussen, a Danish journalist who has reported from Tehran — points out that, “in living standards, Iran is not a developing country, and it’s a lot more affluent than many of the neighboring countries. …

“If you were in Tehran for a week, for example, except when you changed your money you might not get a sense of this insane inflation. Because you still have big billboards advertising clothes stores, you still have a lot of cars in the streets, people are still shopping, you still have people drinking three- or four-dollar cappuccinos in north Tehran. That doesn’t mean the average Iranian is not suffering…

“But then when you talk about whether that leads to civil unrest, for example, then we also have to remember that many Iranians still remember an eight-year war with Iraq, when they were living on food stamps. So they’ve seen a lot more suffering than they’re seeing now.”

Picking up on Sune’s observations, Flynt elaborated on the impact of sanctions — including their indirect contribution to Iranian economic reform: “Anyone who has been in Tehran recently, you can talk to people and definitely get a sense of how sanctions are making daily life harder for more and more people. But the idea that the economy is collapsing is just not borne out by on-the-ground reality.

“It’s also worth pointing out — and I’ve had any number of Iranians, official and otherwise, say this to me — that sanctions, in some ways, actually help Iran, in that they give the government a kind of political cover to take some steps toward what you might call economic reform, that would be politically difficult otherwise.…

“Iran has done more to expand non-oil exports, it is less dependent on oil revenues for both its government budget and to cover its imports, than any other major oil-exporting country in the Middle East. It has done far more in that kind of diversification than Saudi Arabia or any of the states on the other side of the Persian Gulf…

“[Take] the issue of the devaluation of the currency: the Iranian riyal has been overvalued for at least a decade, but no Iranian government has been able or willing actually to let the riyal come back to something like its natural value. Now, because of sanctions, this has happened. And as a result, Iran’s non-oil exports have become much more competitive, and are growing. In percentage terms, they can now cover 50-60 percent of their imports with non-oil exports.”

Finally, on the question of whether sanctions amount to economic war against Iran, Flynt says, “We’re at war, and it’s not just an economic war. We’re engaged in cyber-attacks against high-value Iranian targets, we’re sponsoring covert operations by groups inside Iran that, in any other country in the world, we would call terrorist operations. We are definitely waging war against the Islamic Republic.”

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and – from 2001 to 2003 – was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of the new book, Going to Tehran. Direct link:

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