Should the United States Rethink Sanctions Against Iran?

Editor’s Note: This piece is a rebuttal to a Federation of American Scientists debate about international sanctions on Iran. For additional debates and rebuttals, please click here.

I have been less than a week in the medium-sized city of Neishabour, Iran, visiting relatives, and I can see no sign of a country hunkering for intensifying sanctions and looming difficult times. Sidewalks are full of shoppers and people seem to go about their business as usual. People are complaining about rising prices but they keep buying. There are extravagant wedding parties every evening as hopeful couples tie the knot before the holy month of Ramazan starts, on Friday July 20. Looking at the pace of normal life, one can understand why Iranian leaders seem in no hurry to throw in the towel in the nuclear standoff with the West, and why Western claims of imminent economic doom are exaggerated.

But all is not well, not by a long shot. The dollar has gone through the roof, food prices have skyrocketed, industrial production is down, and unemployment is rising. The oil embargo has cut into Iran¹s oil revenues and financial sanctions have limited the country¹s access to the global economy. Spot shortages and sharp price increases for key food items are already being felt across Iran. This provincial city was rocked on July 23 when hundreds marched down its main street protesting the shortage of chicken at the official price. There is no doubt that ordinary Iranians will pay a heavy price as sanctions intensify; the big question is how sanctions will influence Iran¹s behavior in the international stage.

When sanctions were “smart” and aimed to make life difficult for Iran’s leaders, ordinary Iranians acted as disinterested bystanders. But now that sanctions aim to make life difficult for them, they will have to take sides. Or so goes the theory: put pressure on the people — “economic warfare,” as one conservative commentator told the New York Times — so they get their government to compromise.

Since this theory is about to be put to an extremely costly test, it is important to consider a few things before we commit to this path.

First, international sanctions only work when the population they are imposed on identifies with the objective of the sanctions. This is the big difference between the sanctions to end apartheid in South Africa and those to force Iran to abandon nuclear enrichment. Most Iranians are not all that invested in nuclear enrichment, one way or the other, but few would see stopping Iran’s enrichment as their cause.

Furthermore, history shows that, when threatened by sanctions, Iranians are unlikely to rise up against their own government. In 1952, a Western-imposed embargo on Iranian oil devastated Iran’s economy, but people tolerated the pain and stood with their government. It took a US-sponsored coup a year and a half later to topple the nationalist government and help Western powers achieve their objectives.

True, Iranians are more polarized today, especially after the rise of the Green movement following the controversial election of 2009. But it is a misreading of Iran’s political scene to believe that sanctions will revise or strengthen the protest movement. The opposite may be true. The Green movement was built on economic growth and an expanding middle class. Thanks to economic growth fueled by rising oil revenues, 40percent of Iranians have joined the middle class and the lower 40 percent aspire to the same. The economy has not been doing well lately, the average Iranian still enjoys a decent standard of living, has access to basic services, health, and education. Significantly, last year’s Human Development Report that ranks countries based on income, health, and education placed Iran above Turkey, which is the best performing country in the region.

Sanctions are slowly transforming Iran from a country with an expanding middle class and a rising private sector into a country with a shrinking middle class and private sector. Financial sanctions have placed private firms at a disadvantage relative to government-owned firms in making global transactions. Where the private sector withdraws, the state is often ready to move in.

More severe sanctions will go beyond hurting the private sector and threaten the living standards of the middle class. As basic services deteriorate, and the shortages and long lines that were common sights during the Iran-Iraq war reappear, the government will once again become not the source but the remedy to their problems.

The sanctions will do much to undermine the belief among Iranians about the benefits of the global economy. Such beliefs are what distinguish India from Pakistan. If there is hope for Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab Spring to become stable societies it is the belief in the benefits to their citizens of remaining connected to the global economy. The short-term gains from nuclear gamesmanship must balance the long-term cost of alienating the Iranian middle class.

Spreading faith in global cooperation used to be the White Man’s Burden, but no longer. Leaders in Brazil, China, India and Turkey have done a lot to persuade their people that working within the global economy is not a threat but an opportunity. Many leaders of the Islamic Republic have pushed a similar view. The year President Ahmadinejad took office, in 2005, the Fourth Development Plan he inherited was subtitled “In Conformity with the Global Economy.” These leaders believed in the Islamic Republic as a development state. They built infrastructure and schools and promoted family planning. Naturally, they do not want to gamble all they have achieved in a high stakes nuclear game. If by chance they are contemplating to revive the Islamic Republic as a development state, the world should help them succeed, not undermine their effort.