All Commentary
Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Case Against Sanctions on Iran

When I was a kid, Glen, the boy next door, once played a nasty trick on my brother, Paul. Glen held his cat in his arms, brought it within a few inches of Paul’s face, and pulled its tail. The suddenly angry cat bit Paul’s face. My brother and I were upset; we both thought the cat, if it bit anyone, should have bitten the perpetrator.

When governments impose economic sanctions on people in other countries, they too are pulling the cat’s tail. Glen’s intent was to get his cat to bite my brother. His plan worked. The intent of a government that imposes sanctions is to get the people in the target country to “bite” their government. That typically does not work. Why? People are smarter than cats.

For the last few years the U.S. government and some other governments have wanted to dissuade Iran’s government from pursuing nuclear weapons. To do so they have imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran. In May 2011, for example, the U.S. government imposed sanctions to try to reduce the supply of gasoline. Drying up gasoline supplies to Iran—which, surprisingly, imports much of its gasoline—has been a method favored by those who want to hurt Iranians.

It’s not clear how effective such sanctions can be. The companies and governments that the U.S. government threatens to penalize if they export gasoline to Iran might just be replaced by companies over which the U.S. government has little leverage.

But let’s assume that the sanctions can do real harm. What happens next?

One thing we can be sure of is that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, according to Hoover Institution scholar Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, is approximately the 18th most-powerful politician in Iran, and Ali Khamenei, the most powerful politician there, are not doing without gasoline. No. The people who do without gasoline, or with less gasoline, are everyday Iranians who have approximately zero say in the policies that the U.S. government wants to change.

So what is the U.S. government hoping for? It hopes that Iranians—like my neighbor’s cat—will lash out at whoever’s face is right in front of them. The idea is to induce Iranians to see their own government as the enemy so they will put pressure on it.

But when Iranians suddenly find gasoline in short supply or more expensive, so that even getting to work or to the store is a challenge, they will wonder who is responsible. It won’t be hard to find out. Although the government of Iran has a great deal of power to censor newspapers, radio, and television, one piece of information that it’s sure not to censor is the role of outside governments in the country’s economic distress.

Of course, the government will exaggerate the harm done by the sanctions. Although socialism is what’s killing poor people in Cuba, for example, Fidel Castro for almost 50 years blamed Cuba’s economic problems on the “blockade,” his word for the embargo imposed by the U.S. government in the early 1960s. But he can plausibly make this claim because the embargo exists. Likewise, much of the Iranian people’s pain is caused by their own government’s intrusive limits on economic freedom. In the annual index of economic freedom, published in Economic Freedom of the World, Iran dropped from 80th of 141 countries in 2006 to 112th in 2007, a breathtaking drop for one year. It inched up slightly to 105th in 2009, but that still places Iran low on economic freedom. Although, as in Cuba, this lack of economic freedom is the most important cause of Iran’s pain, sanctions cause further pain. And the Iranian government will be sure to tell its citizens who imposed the sanctions.

What do people in embargoed countries do when they find out that foreign governments threaten them? They want to do what my neighbor’s cat would not do: bite the perpetrator. The idea that one country’s government can, by inflicting pain on people in another country, cause them to pressure their government to change is simply wishful thinking.

To understand this, ask yourself how you would feel if another country’s government imposed sanctions on Americans that were serious enough to cause us real harm. Is your first instinct to be upset at your own government? If it is, you are unusual. I’d bet you would feel some animosity toward that foreign government.

The further tragedy in the case of Iran is that there appears to be a strong moderate element that would like better relations with the United States, as well as with other people and governments in the West. By tightening the screws on Iran, the U.S. government is nipping this movement in the bud.

Do I have the solution to stop the Iranian government from developing nuclear weapons? No, I don’t. But for three reasons it doesn’t matter for the issue of sanctions.

First, the Iranian government does not appear to be developing nuclear weapons. If you have read otherwise in U.S. newspaper headlines, then read beyond the headlines. In 2007 and 2011 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Iran scrapped its weapons program in 2003. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) late last year certified that Iran has diverted no uranium to weapons purposes. Moreover, investigative journalist Gareth Porter has debunked some well-publicized but unsubstantiated claims made in the latest IAEA report. Just one example: The Russian scientist identified by the IAEA as a nuclear-weapons expert who helped Iran’s government construct a detonation device is in fact not a nuclear-weapons expert. Instead, in Porter’s words, he “has worked solely on nanodiamonds from the beginning of his research career.”

Second, even if the Iranian government were to develop nuclear weapons, that in itself would not be a threat to Americans. It would not even be much of a threat to Israel. Although the Israeli government has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, everyone knows it does. An Iranian government that “nuked” Israel would face a second-strike response from Israel’s nuclear-armed submarines—and the Iranian government officials know it.

Third, if a proposed measure would harm innocent people and not even achieve its goal, that’s a sufficient argument against the measure. Yet instead of even asking themselves if their proposed measures will be effective, officials resort to a way of thinking so common among politicians—one that was parodied in the British comedy show Yes, Prime Minister: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, it must be done.”

But I do have a partial solution: Have the U.S. government end all current sanctions on Iran, end subsidies to all countries in the Middle East, and pull all troops out of the region. These actions, more than any others, would go a long way toward convincing Iranians that the U.S. government is not a threat. Otherwise, many of them will think, justifiably, that it is like my cruel neighbor.