Iran Options:  Sanctions and Strikes

Iran Sanctions Logo

The inexorable march of the Iranian regime towards nuclear weapons has produced a growing international consensus for serious sanctions. After a year of engagement by President Obama, the Iranians have made it clear that they are not eager to reciprocate by compromising on their nuclear program. The international community now appears to be following a logical sequence from engagement to sanctions, while still leaving the door open to engagement that is serious on the part of the Iranians.

The likely sanctions will be a combination of UN Security Council ‘symbolic’ or soft sanctions and a US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ introducing tough financial and trade sanctions especially targeting the Revolutionary Guard, which is behind both the nuclear program and the escalating human rights violations. The Green Movement would prefer crippling sanctions because it calculates that the people will blame the regime, not the outside world. 

One of the current debates is whether the US Congress’ proposed sanctions banning exports of refined oil to Iran will hurt the people more than the regime. Some think such sanctions will cause a windfall in oil prices to those who run the black market, namely the Revolutionary Guard whom the West is targeting. Others think that Iranian history shows that when the people suffer, it bodes ill for the regime. They argue that the short term disadvantage of hurting the people is compensated by the long term advantage of stirring the people against the regime when their pocket book is hit. Embargoed refined oil could cripple the Iranian domestic economy and has the potential of expanding the Green Movement from a human rights/social freedom movement to a mass protest movement over the economy and human rights. 

Strikes might then follow crippling sanctions, especially if they are coordinated between the international community and the Green Movement. Iranian oil workers might complement international sanctions on refined oil exports by striking at those domestic refineries that President Ahmadinejad is depending on to compensate for embargoed gasoline from abroad.

It is important to examine more closely the assumptions underlying the "targeted versus crippling sanctions" debate. The international community is beginning to realize that the best —perhaps only — way to keep Iran from getting the bomb is for a new, moderate leadership to take power in Iran and negotiate a pragmatic compromise on the nuclear file. While this moderate “Green Regime” might wish to retain Iran’s right to enrich uranium, an issue on which most Iranians apparently agree, the bellicose nature of Iran’s nuclear program would be stripped away and what would remain is a low-priority theoretical possibility that Iran could someday become a nuclear power.

This growing international realization that a Green Regime is the best way out of the nuclear standoff is causing the international community to begin to look at sanctions differently. Targeted sanctions expect that targeting regime figures and their business partners and companies will change their mind about pursuing nuclear weapons; regime hegemony; support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other kindred spirits abroad; and continuing to violate all kinds of human rights conventions to which Iran is signatory by ruthlessly suppressing the opposition.

Given the stakes involved for these regime figures and their need to survive in power, it is hard to believe that economic and other pressures directed at them from targeted sanctions will dissuade them from their ruthless tactics at home, their ideological pitch abroad to galvanize their increasingly shrinking hard core base of supporters at home, and, of course, their nuclear weapons program.

Crippling sanctions that hurt the average Iranian, on the other hand, could rouse Iranian workers out of their apathy and get them into the streets. The missing demonstrators on February 11, the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, were not the human rights advocates, urban middle class and college graduates, but the workers who keep the system going. Crippling sanctions might have an impact on those currently apathetic Iranians – workers especially – who dislike both Khamenai and Ahmadinejad but who can live with the regime provided they receive enough income for food and shelter. The combined effect of the removal of government subsidies and crippling sanctions will likely evaporate that essential income and cause workers to hit the street. This is where crippling sanctions can bolster domestic opposition. If the regime can neither import refined oil nor get its striking workers to refine domestic oil, then the economy will truly grind to a halt and serious street demonstrations will ensue that cannot be contained by the regime. 

Con Coughlin
writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Tough sanctions would do more to intensify the pressure on Mr. Ahmadinejad and the hard-line conservatives to come to their senses than the well-intentioned, but mainly ineffectual, efforts of the green movement.” Rather than see sanctions as I do as a means for helping the Green Movement to become more effective, he, like many in the West, views sanctions as a means for dissuading regime leaders from pursuing the nuclear program. 

I am skeptical that freezing the bank accounts of, say, Ayatollah Janati, the hard-line head of the Guardian Council who refused to allow a revote after last June’s questionable elections, along with his businessmen supporters, will be sufficient. What are they going to do? Cease to support Khamenai and Ahmadinejad?  They are in this thing to the end. If this regime falls, they know they are out of power for the rest of their lives. It is a zero-sum game between the conservatives now in power and reformers from the Green Movement. The regime plays to and seeks to galvanize its shrinking but ideological hard core. Brandishing virtual nuclear weapons and making threats against America and Israel all play to that hard-core base.  Sanctions targeted only against these true believers will do little to cause them to moderate their tune. 

The one caveat I would add is that many revolutionary guard officers are not die-hard regimists and might be persuaded by ‘conditional’ sanctions to turn sides and even alert the Green Movement of planned militia troop movements ahead of demonstrations. In short, the ideal set of sanctions are those that punish regime leaders and senior commanders of the revolutionary guard, deter those just below the leadership to back off from blind support for the regime, and mobilize Iranian workers who sees their income jeopardized by Iran’s ostracism that results from the disastrous policies of the regime.  Tough sanctions will not bring regime figures to their senses, but could bolster the efforts of the Green Movement with workers and others who have mainly remained on the sidelines, and who can make the critical difference between failure and success for the forces of change in Iran. 

Iran analysts are not the only ones challenging the ‘group think’ that says that crippling sanctions will result in the Iranian people blaming the US for orchestrating the sanctions. Leading spokesmen for the Green Movement outside Iran are convinced that the average Iranian will blame the regime, not the US, for the economic pain caused by crippling sanctions. One such representative said last December that “while no Green Movement or reformist leader inside the country is in a position to publicly validate the imposition of sanctions, they all feel that it is critical that serious sanctions should be imposed. …[T]he two legs that support the Islamic regime are forces of coercion and the country’s oil income. …Minus the oil income, there will be no forces of coercion. Hence, it is impossible to defeat the regime without limiting the economic capabilities of the ruling establishment.” 

Common sense suggests that the average Iranian will be mobilized to act only if he or she suffers some direct economic pain. Of course, the Iranian people are less likely to lash out against the West if they are made aware as they are about to be hit with crippling sanctions just what the regime had on offer from the international community and turned down. The public might be astounded to hear of the long-standing P5 +1 incentive package offer regarding social, economic, political, security, technological, agricultural, energy, nuclear, civil aviation, and environmental cooperation in return for a comprehensive, long-term and proper solution of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. The fact that the regime could have gotten all this assistance from the international community had it compromised will only make the public more likely to blame the regime for bringing on the additional economic hardships caused by the sanctions. 

Over the last several months, human rights issues are bringing thousands into the streets. Crippling sanctions will bring other elements out into the streets and, if coordinated with the inside, may spark the strikes that will shut down Iran’s industries. Once that happens, it is likely that no amount of militias from the basij and revolutionary guard can keep this regime in power.

Jonathan Paris is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.  Image credit: Top News.

Image: iran-sanctions.jpg