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Failure Forecast: Sanctions Won't Work on Iran

05 Nov 2018

John Glaser

Leading into tomorrow’s midterm election, Trump spent
weeks ginning up fear and hysteria over the fictional threat of a
caravan of asylum-seekers. Trump excited—some might say
incited—his political base by characterizing the caravan as
an invasion and the refugees it carries as disease-infested gang
members and terrorists of “unknown Middle Eastern”
origin. But stories of hordes of barbarian invaders aren’t
the only tall tales driving White House policy right now: the
administration has also kicked up a storm about the terrible, and
largely imaginary, threat posed by Iran.

As of today, the Trump administration has imposed a new set of
harsh economic sanctions on Iran. This is in clear violation of the
2015 agreement that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and
put a lid on it for the foreseeable future. Trump unilaterally
withdrew from the deal in May, but Iran has remained in full
compliance for three years.

No matter, we’ve been told. An antagonistic approach
toward Iran is necessary because Iran, as Secretary of State Mike
Pompeo put it on Sunday, is
a “terror regime” that threatens our allies,
destabilizes the Middle East, and abuses the rights of its own
people. Sanctions, Pompeo promises, will change all that.

The truth is that
President Trump has no real strategy for Tehran.

Actually, they won’t. Here are a few reasons why sanctions will

Sanctions Won’t Change Iran’s Behavior for the

Sanctions have a generally poor track record of actually
changing the behavior of the target state in the direction desired
by the sanctioning country. The White House hopes sanctions will
impoverish Iran so much that the regime will be deprived of
resources with which to carry out its policies.

But a recent study by the
International Crisis Group looks specifically at the history of
sanctions on Iran and finds that the “historical data shows
little, if any, correlation between the resources at Iran’s
command and its regional behavior.”

In fact, aggressively sanctioning Iran, surrounding them
militarily as we have, and threatening them with war only creates
fear that Iran then acts upon. As the Crisis Group report explains,
“the extent to which the Islamic Republic feels threatened or
senses opportunity in its neighborhood largely defines its conduct.
Measured against that standard, the Trump administration’s
aggressive policy is likelier to spur Iran’s regional
activism than to curb it.”

More to the point, sanctions are supposed to be about
incentives. It’s hardly possible to successfully impose
incentives against Iran when we’re not giving them a viable
off-ramp. Short of total surrender, the White House hasn’t
clarified how Iran can get these sanctions lifted.

Sanctions Will Largely Hurt the People, Not the

To say sanctions won’t be effective in changing
Iran’s policies according to the Trump administration’s
preferences is not to say sanctions won’t hurt the Iranian
economy. They will.

To put it bluntly, sanctions are about undermining the economy,
and that means hurting innocent people. Everyday Iranians will lose
their jobs, they’ll have less expendable income, inflation
will make it harder to pay for basic needs.

U.S. sanctions target hundreds of Iranian banks and companies,
making it very difficult to import food and medicine and other
humanitarian supplies. Life-saving treatment for hemophilia and
certain kinds of cancer are particularly difficult to get under
sanctions. The lives of thousands of patients
are at risk.

Yet, Secretary Pompeo seems to think this will endear the
Iranian people to America’s good will. Describing the policy
back in July, he talked of
“support[ing] the long-ignored voice of the Iranian
people” as a primary motive for imposing sanctions. If
anything, the pain America imposes on ordinary Iranians will turn
them against us, not against the regime.

To the extent that the regime is impacted by sanctions, it will
be to undercut the moderate reformers in Iran who want to develop
friendlier relations with the outside world, while simultaneously
bolstering the hardliners—even directly: Iran’s
Revolutionary Guard Corps controls most of the black-market
smuggling, which gets more profitable under a comprehensive
sanctions regime.

There Is No Strategy

One wonders in vain what it is that the Trump administration
hopes to accomplish in its maximum-pressure campaign against

Clearly, the aim is not to discourage an Iranian nuclear weapons
program. If that were the aim, then the administration would not
have withdrawn from one of the strongest nonproliferation
agreements in history.

And while Trump officials cite Iran’s regional
behavior—its support for proxies, its meddling in Syria,
etc.—as justification for a confrontational policy, hardly
anyone believes Iran will reverse these policies in response.

The White House has repeatedly denied its policy is designed to
change the regime in Tehran. That’s good, because regime
change of that sort is not a legitimate function of U.S. foreign
policy. In any case, history tells us that a policy of regime
change would fail miserably and produce profoundly negative

And yet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently can’t
stop himself from framing this policy in precisely those terms. As
he put it last week
with palpable hubris: “We want to restore democracy there. We
think the Iranian people want that same thing.”

Despite this rhetoric, it is doubtful that the Trump
administration actually wants the Iranian regime to collapse
tomorrow. The unstated objective is to pressure the Iranians to
invite the United States back to the negotiating table, which is
where Iran can unilaterally submit to a “more for less”
deal, one that obligates Tehran to commit to even greater
encroachments on its sovereignty in exchange for less economic
benefit and fewer concessions from Washington.

But Iran has already gone through a negotiating process with the
United States, and it got burned. Tehran played by the rules and
the United States broke its promises. They are not about to
willingly pie themselves in the face again in response to new
economic sanctions.

The truth is that the president has no real strategy here. The
maximum-pressure policy is the product of Trump’s spite for
his predecessor’s success, threat inflation on Iran
generally, and subordination to U.S. allies in the region.

John Glaser is
director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal