New Sanctions on Iran. Again.

In Economics on June 9, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , , , ,

With yet another round of U.S.-backed sanctions adopted by the U.N., the fiction that something meaningful is being done to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions continues. The loud protestations of Iranian president Ahmadinejad further enhance the illusion that these sanctions might actually have an effect. Despite the outward appearance of action, it is not the United Nations nor the United States that is determining the pace and course of events; it is the Iranians who hold the strategic initiative and are able to manipulate the situation to their best advantage. The Iranians have learned a lot about how to effectively oppose the United States by evaluating the experiences of those that have done so before. There are four vital concepts they have learned from history, and, in combination with a clear set of strategic objectives, they are applying these to good effect in the current situation. The West, by contrast, has not developed the sort of sophisticated appreciation of the strategic situation in the Persian Gulf that is necessary to effectively counter Iran’s efforts to dominate the region, nor does it appear to have considered how the Iranian leadership might view the lessons of recent history.

First, Iran’s government understands that the biggest ally they have when dealing with a hostile Western government is time; simply hold out for a few years and the people will lose interest, or grow tired of the effort, or the leaders will change. Even if the new leadership appears overtly hostile, the shift buys time for opponents to maneuver, and public hostility serves to reinforce the raison d’etre of the regime. North Vietnam played this game with the U.S. and the French and won. If the new Western leadership offers an olive branch, the opportunities to gain expand, as the typical form of such an offer involves financial or material support in exchange for promises to desist from certain behaviors. Of course, no mechanism actually capable of enforcing these promises can be included, but this is easily avoided by insisting that trust must be demonstrated by both parties. North Korea has managed to manipulate several American administrations this way, accepting aid while breaking the unenforceable agreements made in exchange for it. Each new U.N. secretary general and U.S. president seems to believe that they can make the North Koreans comply; it has not happened yet, for the simple reason that the leaders of the North are far better off in their current circumstances.

This raises a second important point that Western leaders (and the U.N. leadership in included in this, as the organization is fundamentally Western in its objectives) have failed to understand, but of which the Iranians are very much cognizant: peace is not an end in and of itself. The West does not appear grasp that the sort of settlement they propose would badly weaken the Iranian government; after all, why would the Iranian people support an oppressive regime unless it was the only thing keeping their enemies at bay? Totalitarian governments learned long ago that external enemies are vital to maintaining their hold on power (see George Kennan’s “Sources of Soviet Conduct” for a highly cogent discussion of this). More disturbingly, it is possible that some Western leaders actually do realize that their proposals would undermine the Iranian leadership, but somehow think that the Iranians will accept them anyway. Given that the U.S., the rest of the major Western democracies, and the U.N. are collectively the least Machiavellian political entities in the world, it is entirely possible that such delusion exists at the highest levels. This sort of misapprehension suggests that utopian optimism, expressed in the assumption that all the world seeks free markets, openness and democracy, is still the predominant characteristic in Western strategy. The Iranians would likely reject this assertion.

More recent history has demonstrated to Iran a third simple truth: nations without nuclear weapons may be attacked with relative impunity; those with nuclear weapons can survive indefinitely. This is an oversimplification of the strategic value of limited nuclear capability, but the positive example of North Korea is once again in the forefront, along with the counterpoints starkly provided by Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which of course border Iran). Here Iran has gone to great lengths to avoid the enforcement of non-proliferation as applied to Iraq and Syria in 1981 and 2007 respectively by the Israeli Air Force, burying its facilities in hardened underground complexes and dispersing them widely. The result is a more survivable program, one which is likely to be more survivable than any military weapons it might produce (surreptitiously-delivered weapons are another matter). The value of these weapons is strictly as a deterrent, but this raises obvious questions about first-use, particularly against countries like Israel or the United States, both of which have large nuclear arsenals. In the end, the deterrent value of nuclear weapons to Iran is likely to be considerably less than its leaders think – nonetheless, any factor that complicates the strategic calculations of its opponents is viewed positively, and nuclear capability certainly accomplishes that goal.

Finally, there is the question of sanctions themselves. The current Iranian regime has been subject to international sanctions of various sorts virtually since its inception in 1979. The fact that the government not only still exists, but has in fact consolidated its hold on power in the intervening years suggests that the sanctions have not achieved their purposes, whatever they might be. The watered-down nature of sanctions regimes developed as the result of a collective process certainly does not help to create real pressure. The fact remains, however, that there have always been countries willing to trade with Iran despite the sanctions, and the unwillingness of those applying the sanctions to unilaterally enforce them (when this is even possible) has been one of the few consistent elements in the Western effort.

The problems underlying Western sanctions efforts are easy to explain: the sanctions applied against Iran (and most other nations that have been subjected to similar treatment) have often been without specific purpose, and even when they have had a direction (as in the case of nuclear technology), they have been too weak to actually compel changes in behavior and have not been effectively enforced. Here again Western understanding is at odds with the strategic realities of history. Sanctions have historically worked (i.e., forced a change in behavior on the part of the country subject to them) only when they have caused consequences so damaging that to continue to exist under them was even more distasteful than complying with the wishes of those who implemented them. There are very few examples of sanctions working in that fashion; the fall of South Africa’s apartheid regime (which, it should be noted, had and voluntarily gave up indigenously-produced nuclear weapons) might be one of the best recent examples, and certainly the one that offers hope to proponents of sanctions as a peaceful means to alter an undesirable situation.

History offers another, considerably less desirable example, however: it was in large part the effectiveness of American sanctions against Japan in 1940-1 that led that government to conclude that it had to act decisively to protect its national interest or surrender to the will of its opponent. It is the potential of a similar outcome in the Middle East that strikes fear in the hearts of Western leaders; ironically, it is knowledge of this fear that the Iranians have used so successfully to avoid becoming the target of more direct action. Franklin Roosevelt’s government recognized that Japan had to be stopped before it became a regional hegemon in East Asia, too entrenched and too powerful to stop without enormous cost, if it could be stopped at all. The current governments of the West do not seem to appreciate that the rise of Iran to similar hegemonic status in the Persian Gulf would be every bit as dangerous to their strategic interests, if not moreso.

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