"If you don’t support sanctions, you’re not in the game," a prominent Jewish-American intellectual recently told a group of Iranian-American academics. They were discussing how a US-Iran-Israel war could be prevented, a war opposed by the majority of Jewish- and Iranian-Americans. His observation about the entry fee to the US debate on Iran was largely correct. But while sanctions have been sold as an alternative to war, they have made war more likely. Here's why.
Seeking to sanction a country into capitulation is not a new strategy. It's a proven failed strategy. In the ten past cases where broad sanctions of the kind imposed on Iran were used, only once did the sanctioned country capitulate (in that case, surrender its nuclear program and transition to democracy). That is the South African case, and it is debatable if sanctions contributed positively to the demise of apartheid. In the nine other cases, the sanctioned regimes usually became more repressive, more undemocratic, and more destabilizing. In the case of Iraq, sanctions paved the way for war.
The pattern of the Iran sanctions exhibits many similarities with the process in which sanctions on Iraq increasingly closed off all peaceful options and how sanctions on North Korea increased that state's perceived need for nuclear deterrence.
Once sanctions intensify into a full trade embargo and diplomacy falls to the wayside, the sanctioned country is left with only one option: to endure. This negative-sum dynamic, far from deterring countries from pressuring and harming one another, has the opposite effect, even at the expense of their own economies (e.g. the EU oil embargo on Iran).
They quickly get trapped in an escalatory cycle, where constant pressure for additional sanctions guides the sanctioning country to signal its endurance ("We must show Iran that we are serious," an EU official recently told me). The sanctioned country, in turn, escalates by both advancing the program it is being pressured for and seeking to creating problems for the sanctioning countries in other areas ("We must show the West that we are serious," an Iranian diplomat told me in an interview in 2010).
Along the way, as part of this escalatory sanctions dynamic, measures are adopted that at the time may not appear to be decisive, but in essence create an irreversibility that eliminates all non-confrontational options. This leaves the sanctioning countries with only two policies: Regime change or war. Or both.
This happened in 1998 in Iraq. Under President Bill Clinton, Congress adopted the Iraq Liberation Act. A full embargo had already been in place on Iraq for six years, which had a crushing effect on the Iraqi economy and society. But while the sanctions crippled the fabric of the ancient Iraqi society, it did not break the endurance of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. Frustrated, Congress felt that more pressure was needed—after all, we could not afford to leave Saddam with the impression that we weren't serious. The Iraq Liberation Act raised the stakes to demonstrate that seriousness by making regime change official US policy. This meant that even if Saddam sought to capitulate, it would not suffice. His regime had to go. As desirable as that outcome was, its effect was to redouble Saddam's determination. His last theoretical exit ramp had been eliminated.
Only two things could break the deadlock in Iraq. Either the collapse of Saddam's regime (which Washington had limited ability to impact) or war. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Much indicates that the sanctions strategy on Iran will very soon reach this point. Some analysts believe that it already has. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institute writes in Foreign Affairs that "by embracing maximalist measures, the White House has come full circle, abandoning, along the way, its earlier optimistic efforts at engagement…American policy is now effectively predicated on achieving political change in Tehran. Such an outcome will likely prove even more elusive than productive talks with the revolutionary regime."
Indeed, Tehran already believes that Washington's objective is what it became in Iraq: regime change. Moreover, the next to impossible task of lifting sanctions as part of a nuclear deal minimizes Iran's incentives to compromise. This is especially true since most US sanctions only can be lifted by Congress, a process that has taken years at best in the past. The result is that we will soon be faced with another deadlock immune to reason and incentives.
Many pro-democracy Iranian-Americans oppose broad sanctions for these reasons (this is not mention the unjustifiable suffering they impose on the Iranian people). Broad sanctions reduce the likelihood of democratization in Iran while increasing the risk of war. War, in turn, will destabilize the region, cause the deaths of thousands of innocents on all sides, and actually increase the likelihood that Iran gets a nuclear bomb down the road. It will also further retard the Iranian people's indigenous drive towards democracy.
For many Iranian-Americans, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a nightmare. But there has been hope, because all nightmares come to an end. The fear is, however, that a sanctions policy that eventually leads to war will perpetuate this nightmare for decades to come. Someway, somehow, even the mysterious forces that set the entry fee for Washington’s debate on Iran must acknowledge this reality.