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Can sanctions work
against Iran?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

September 6, 2006

LONDON - To sanction or not to sanction. That is the age-old question, one never resolved in a satisfactory proof-of-the-pudding way.

America’s foreign policy has long been about one half-part sanctions. But for every success there has been a failure. No one honestly knows if the glass is half full or half empty. This won’t stop Washington pushing for sanctions against Iran. In hard cases Washington, through successive administrations, has been wedded to sanctions as a major tool of policy.

President Woodrow Wilson tried to sell America on the League of Nations by arguing for sanctions as an alternative to war. “A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force.” Yet, although Wilson did not live to see it, the major reason for Japan entering World War 2 by bombing Pearl Harbour was to right the wrong it felt from the constant pressure of American sanctions.

We know with the benefit of hindsight that sanctions on countries as diverse as Cuba, Haiti and Iraq fell heaviest on the poorest and weakest. The ruling class managed always to evade any effect on them personally. Indeed, sanctions on Iraq which gave rise to a sophisticated black market that allowed Iraq to trade oil so enriched Saddam Hussein that it allowed him to buy the loyalty of religious and tribal leaders. However, we also know that sanctions were a very effective tool in undermining his weapons of mass destruction program.

The Serbian case is the present day’s outstanding failure. The wars of the former Yugoslavia are rooted in large part in the economic crisis of 1979-89, when Yugoslavia was scissored between its need to repay a huge foreign debt incurred from its defunct Communist era and its new attempt to create a market economy.

Unemployment, hyperinflation and a drastic fall in living standards, combined with bitter conflicts over federal and regional budgets, were the catalyst for political disintegration. Economic sanctions merely worsened problems that helped trigger the war.

Sanctions pushed Serbia to reintroduce state monopolies. Sanctions also gave new life to the police and armed forces whose number had been reduced. President Slobodan Milosevic’s personal authority was strengthened because it was he who could determine which enetreprises received subsidies, which workers would be unemployed and which pensions would be paid. Nevertheless, once full-scale war was underway the arms embargo undoubtedly decreased the intensity of the conflict. Yet it also weakened the Bosnian Muslims who had fewer arms to begin with.

The sanctions imposed against the apartheid-supporting regime of white South Africa have always been held aloft by the left as a great success story that gradually but surely undermined regime. But in conversation last year with former President F.W. deKlerk, the white leader who made “the great peace” with Nelson Mandela, I was impressed by his conviction that it was not sanctions that pushed him towards compromise. He bluntly dismissed their effect, saying the economy was strong enough to ride them out. “What pushed us was the fear of a black-white war that would ruin everything for both sides.”

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How then to get sanctions right? How to avoid a situation, as in Iraq, where they did the job they were meant to - enforcing disarmament - but strengthened Saddam’s grip and killed off tens of thousand innocent children for lack of medicine and nourishment? At the other extreme why was Pakistan never effectively sanctioned during its nuclear bomb-making phase? There weren’t even export controls on key industrial materials and during the Reagan years there was the perverse policy of trying to bribe Pakistan away from developing its nuclear program by agreeing to sell it state-of-the-art war planes.

How with a record like this can the U.S. or Europe get it right with Iran today? Brave dissidents like Saeed Hajjarian, who once took a bullet in the face from point-blank range from a hardliner, argues that sanctions would “make the situation here more militarised, and in such an atmosphere democracy is killed”.

Besides what do the leaders of Iran and North Korea actually want? They don’t want nuclear weapons for their intrinsic value. (Clearly in Iran’s case the leadership is much troubled by the theological implications of the possession of such weapons.) They want them to ensure their status as independent political entities that won’t be overthrown by outsiders. In Libya’s case only when the U.S. and Britain could convince Qadaffi that this wasn’t their attention did he bend and meet the UN’s demands.

Sanctions need subtlety and skill. We have to study war a little less and sanctions rather more.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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