History repeated: Why Iran sanctions will backfire on the hapless Obama administration

by Cyrus Safdari (source: Iran Affairs)
Saturday, September 15, 2012

Trita Parsi writes in today’s Daily Beast that the US sanctions can cause considerable damage to America’s “soft power” amongst ordinary Iranians, who until now generally held favorable views of the US and Americans, with possible negative consequences to US interests:

"This dynamic—growing Iranian resentment of broad-based sanctions—will likely directly affect future nuclear talks between Iran and the West. While citizens of a country don't exert direct power in un-democratic countries like Iran, popular sentiment can still bring some pressure to bear on these countries' governments. This is what the Obama Administration hopes to achieve in order to soften Tehran's stance. But this pressure grows proportionally with ire directed against the government—but not with anger directed at outside powers. If the balance of anger shifts against the U.S., a key element of the pressure approach falls apart."

If the Obama administration is betting that the sanctions will cause public sentiment to swing against the regime on the nuclear issue thus causing Tehran to "soften" its negotiating position, as Trita states above, it is not just a stupid policy but it also shows a profound misunderstanding of the Iranian national psyche and their narrative of their history, something that may be a mystery to most Americans including the policy-makers, but which Iranian children read all about in their highschool history books.



If anyone had bothered to actually learn this Iranian historical narrative, they would know that this is hardly the first time that a foreign superpower has imposed sanctions, issued ultimatums, and threatened attacks on Iran. There's a long history of this dating back to before the 1953 coup, when the UK practiced gun boat diplomacy in the Persian Gulf and the media was also full of reports of military forces preparing to attack Iran, just like how the US military is regularly reported to preparaing to attack Iran today. 

In fact, Iran has been dealing with this sort of thing since the late 1890s, and especially during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-07, when Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia were the dominant powers of the world. (Short version of history: Iran created a constutional form of government where the King reigned but did not rule -- like in Belgium, Norway or Britain -- and attempted to gain control of their own government's finances which were under the control of Russia and Britain, but the Russians ended up shelling Iran's Parliament building, and together with the British they divided Iran up between themselves while installing a puppet Shah in power -- thus ending Iran's first experiment with a Western style constitutional democracy. Yes, this was in 1907, long before the CIA coup of 1953 that toppled Mossadegh.) And in this historical narrative, the Iranian officials who stood up to the foreign pressures are considered national heroes, while the ones who caved-in are considered corrupt traitors to the motherland.

So now, the US has allowed itself to be steered by AIPAC and Israel into filling the same role as the Russians and British in this damning historical narrative. This will naturally result in the same sort of Iranian nationalistic backlash and the same sort deep resentment against America that Iranians still reserve for the previous imperial powers who pulled this crap on them (even today, Brits are less preferred to Americans in Iran, as the general Iranian popular stereotype of the British portrays them as being crafty and underhanded in pursuing their interests at the cost of Iranian interests.)



After all, lets keep in mind an inconvenient fact: Iran’s nuclear program has massive popular support, even amongst opponents to the regime. Even Mir Hussein Moussavi, the purported leader of the alleged “Green Movement” whose post-election demonstrations were presented in the US media as evidence of anti-regime, pro-democracy movement in Iran, criticized Iranian president Ahmadinejad over his stance on the nuclear issue -- not because Mousavi thought Ahmadinejad was being too hardline and uncompromising, but because he thought Ahmadinejad was being too soft on the nuclear issue and was offering too many nuclear concessions to the West in the now-defunct uranium swap proposals. That's right: the "leader" of the so-called "Green Movement" that the West put so much stock in, was actually more hardline on the nuclear issue than the current Iranian president.

And why should this be surprising? Like I always say, let us engage in a thought experiment: suppose the roles were reversed, and Iran was daily threatening the US unless the US gave up a sovereign right. What would the reaction of an average American be? Why assume Iranians would react any differently when they’re told they have to give up enrichment of their own uranium, using their own technology, to power their own reactors? This fact -- that Iranians a whole support their nuclear program -- never really enters into the debate because it is a taboo thing to say in polite Washington DC circles. I am constantly amazed at this persistent blindness to the fact that other people may love their country too. But perhaps it can be explained by the fact that at bottom, the NeoCons are racists who assume other people, particularly from less developed countries, are somehow less human than they are, and so should be more easily cowed. I remember one pundit -- I think it was Gary Milholin of the Wisconsin Project (who insisted that Iraq had WMDs) saying that the Iranian people support their nuclear program only because "they haven't tasted sancions yet."

Well, what if they taste the sanctions, develop an even bigger grudge about it against the US, and support their nuclear program even more out of a sense of outraged nationalism? Where would that leave things? Having invested so much in pushing the sanctions, one can't really expect the US to then simply throw up its hands and walk away from this policy. No, the US will have to double-down and dig the hole deeper, raising the stakes in the hopes that the Iranians may eventually crack -- and if they don't, then the US has dug itself a hole that it cant' get out of and will have no choice but to attack militarily. We're already well down this path.

In fact lets keep another inconvenient fact in mind: the Iranian people are actually more “hardline” regarding their nuclear program than the Iranian regime itself. While Iranian government officials go to great lengths to deny any intention to make nuclear weapons and have repeatedly offered to accept additional restrictions on the nuclear program -- restrictions that go well beyond Iran’s legal obligations under the NPT or what any other country has accepted -- polls have shown a growing portion of Iranian people actually want their country to not just produce nuclear energy but nuclear weapons as well.

So much for the prospects of sanctions causing public sentiment to soften Iran's nuclear negotiation stance.

But of course, aside from all this, the sanctions can’t be removed by the Obama administration anyway, no matter how damaging the sanctions policy may be to America’s influence over Iran and no matter how much Obama himself would want to remove them. Apart from the fact that the Israeli-dominated US Congress has imposed the sanctions and so they're the only ones who can remove them, and also apart from the fact that the proponents of sanctions (NeoCons, specifically) have an authoritarian worldview themselves and so they simply lack the necessary imagination to come up with a better policy on Iran except one that relies on coercion and dominance, the truth is that the forces behind the sanctions (for example AIPAC, which literally wrote the texts of some of the sanctions laws passed by Congress) have their own particular short-term interests and goals in mind, and so they simply don’t concern themselves with the broader and more general US interests anyway. The goal of these sanctions-proponents is to forestall an improvement in US-Iran relations for the same of Israel, not to promote it, and ultimately to even cause a war between the two nations if it comes to it. The fact that the sanctions may turn popular opinion in Iran against the US is in fact a desired outcome for them, not an unforseen side-effect. They would actually prefer more ill-feeling between Americans and Iranians, not less, because the last thing they want is any such positive sentiment to lead to an improvement in US-Iran relations while the current regime is still in charge.

In fact, like I said before, the “target” of the sanctions is not so much Iran as the Obama administration itself, because with the passing of each sanctions measure against Iran, the US goes further down the road that can only lead to a war, and it becomes politically more difficult for any US politician to do an about-face and remove the sanctions on Iran. (This is also why the issue is presented in the media as a false choice between “bombing Iran, or Iran gets the bomb”. There's no intermediate option of Iran operating a perfectly normal nuclear energy program with no bomb-making, according to this false choice.)

Sanctions are therefore not really about addressing any purported “nuclear threat” from Iran -- that’s just the pretext, just as “WMDs in Iraq” was just the pretext for another policy altogether: imposing regime-change. Those pushing for sanctions see them as a necessary preliminary step towards a war, not just to “soften-up” Iran prior to the attack as was the case for  Iraq, but to create the pretense of having "exhausted diplomacy" and  to thus manouvere the Obama administration into a position where politically-speaking, it has no other choice but to attack Iran (which is why you see the Right goading Obama for being "weak" on Iran due to his refusal to impose Netanyahu's "red lines". How much longer can Obama hold out?) 

And in the meantime, multiple opportunities for a peaceful, compromise solution to the nuclear standoff have been systematically eliminated or ignored.  (Indeed, as Trita notes and Yousef Butt has written, we are now at a stage where legally-speaking, the sanctions cannot be removed even if Iran totally gave up her nuclear program, but at the same time the sanctions proponents also say that the sanctions won't work either, thus conveniently leaving only one option: war.)

So, does the suffering of Iranians even matter to these sanctions-proponents? I think that no matter how much suffering is imposed on the ordinary Iranian people, these sanctions-proponents will find a way to justify it or to shift the blame, just as we saw happened with regard to Iraq: Nevermind Madeleine Albright’s assertion that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of sanctions was “worth it” (a statement she later withdrew but only to attempt to shift the blame for the continued sanctions carnage onto Saddam) but I distinctly remember the Right even arguing that the Iraqi people deserved their suffering under the sanctions for their failure to topple Saddam as they should (ignoring that when the Shi’a in southern Iraq did rise up against Saddam with the encouragement of the first Bush administration in 1991, they were almost immediately abandoned by the US, to be brutally massacred by Saddam.)

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