The Obama administration’s Treasury Department recently partially lifted some economic sanctions against Iran for 45 days to allow selected nonprofit groups to collect funds for victims of huge earthquakes in that country. These monetary donations are exempt from U.S. government sanctions until Oct. 5; donations of food and medicine were already permanently exempted from the embargo. According to a Treasury Department statement, the new exemption on monetary donations “is a demonstration of [the] administration’s commitment to supporting the Iranian people affected by this tragedy, and responds to the American people’s desire to provide immediate assistance.”
The administration should be commended for this humanitarian gesture, which allows American aid to flow to Iranian earthquake victims but doesn’t create a new U.S. government program or bureaucracy in doing so. The new exemption, along with existing targeted sanctions against Iranians involved in terrorism or the Iranian government’s alleged nuclear weapons program, is also designed to show that the United States is not trying to focus its potent economic weapon against the people of Iran.
The Obama administration should extend this compassion and realize that many of the United States’ more general economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, which would not be lifted by the temporary relaxation, are also harming the Iranian people. Unlike more defensible targeted sanctions against items that can be used in the nuclear program and against Iranians who are connected with it or terrorism, more general economic sanctions — such as bans on the importation of Iranian oil or financial transactions associated with such trade — are blunt instruments of statecraft that do hurt the Iranian people. Because oil is Iran’s predominant export, the money the economy does not receive from those sales egregiously hurts every Iranian, including the poorest and even the previously mentioned earthquake victims. More generally, for example, if Iran, because of sanctions, cannot get parts for machines in hospitals or electric-power generation, water purification, and waste-treatment plants, average Iranians suffer significantly.
Supposedly, more general economic sanctions, despite the harm to the Iranian population, are worth it because they will put pressure on Iran to miraculously give up its nuclear program. This favorable outcome is a pipe dream. It is not a good thing for a radical Islamist regime to obtain a nuclear weapon or even get close, but Iran’s primary motivation for having a nuclear program is the threats facing it. Its “rough neighborhood” includes possible attacks by the United States, unfriendly Arab states with possible nuclear ambitions of their own, and a hostile Israel, already possessing 200 to 400 nuclear weapons. Iran looks at the respect the United States shows the likely nuclear North Korea and the lack of respect it showed the non-nuclear Libya and Iraq by attacking them and deposing their leaders. Thus, economic pressure, no matter how intense, likely will not cause Iran to back off on such a perceived vital national security requirement for national survival.
If the history of economic sanctions is any indication, the pressure on Iran will lessen over time as Iran finds ways to evade the measures. Yet in the meantime, those fruitless economic weapons will hurt the Iranian people without achieving their political purpose of compelling the Iranian government to give up its nuclear program.
Some would claim, however, that even though the Iranian people are being hurt by this blunt instrument, the alternative to sanctions is war, which would hurt them even more. But it is a fallacy that severe sanctions are often an alternative to war. When such draconian measures are applied, the sanctioning party’s prestige is then put on the line, as U.S. prestige is now vis-à-vis Iran. When economic sanctions don’t work in achieving the political objective — as they usually don’t — pressure then builds for the “what next?” That is usually war — as it was against Manuel Noriega’s Panama in the late 1980s and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the early 1990s and beyond. So the population of those targeted countries first endures economic sanctions and then war.
If policymakers want to avoid war, they should just do so rather than try to delay it using grinding but ineffectual economic measures, which only increase suffering in the meantime. Also, policymakers cannot in good conscience rationalize that biting economic sanctions, which do kill and harm civilians in a much less flashy way than bombs, are the fault of the misbehaving target regime rather than those imposing the measures, as the Clinton administration’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, famously did. Sanctioning governments have experts who know very well that economic weapons are only a crude policy tool and that target governments almost always redirect the pain of sanctions from security forces and other key regime supporters toward the often-poor members of the general population.
The United States should try to peacefully limit, rather than end, Iran’s inevitably continuing nuclear program — a reality that U.S. policymakers already have recognized implicitly with North Korea. But in both cases, instead of using coercion, the Obama administration should extend its compassion to destitute populations and remove likely feckless economic sanctions.