Ineffective tightening of sanctions on Iran

This article originally appeared on the Al Jazeeera English website on Dec. 12, 2011.  You can view it by clicking here .

Washington, DC – There is a long record of the grim effects of sanctions in international struggles against those states deemed as “rogue”. Sanctions are seen as righteous instruments, a non-violent way to pressure problematic regimes to change. But when you really don’t care about a country or its people, then your true attitudes emerge in the way in which you use the sanctions instrument of policy.

Let’s take Iraq. Based on estimates of the massive increase in child mortality rates through the years of the sanctions in the 1990s, anywhere from 300,000 to a million people lost their lives. But no one in Saddam’s inner circle, none of the wealthy, and none of the killers, died from those sanctions. Such sanctions were touted as an enlightened and liberal form of resistance to Saddam’s Iraq. But war kills the people with guns, whereas the sanctions – as they were done -killed the babies, tens of thousands. This is a strange reversal of the moral guidelines of war and peace that we have seen historically from most cultures, wherein innocent civilians were the most protected by law and conscience.

Now we find ourselves once again with choices regarding sanctions on the people of Iran. Every enlightened person knows who we support there. We know what a wealth of both secular and religious Persian culture resides right beneath the surface of some current aberrations. We know that, at least in part, the governments now imposing sanctions destroyed democracy in Iran in 1953, aided despotism for decades, which in turn gave rise to the unfortunate leadership of today. Should we now contemplate killing half a million Iranian babies as an enlightened form of resistance to bad leadership?

Here is what should be done instead of a spiral of confrontation that will surely end in the murderous effects of blunt sanctions and eventually, disastrous war:

1. Continue sanctions on only the most corrupt and dangerous elements within the Iranian Guard and top leadership. The world has grown very sophisticated with smarter, more targeted sanctions, and this will both pressure the corrupt, and endear you to the people, exactly what you want.

2. Offer what has never been offered before to Iran, full diplomatic relations and a non-aggression pact between the United States and Iran. In other words, diplomacy moves from threats of punishment to the lure of a completely new era in historical relations, something that will add enormous support for moderates in Iran, and pressure the reactionaries – exactly what you want.

3. Simultaneously, conduct secret understandings of non-aggression and non-interference between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The very act of pushing this as foreign policy could help defuse tensions in many countries teetering on the edge and caught between these two competing countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

… at least in part, the governments now imposing sanctions destroyed democracy in Iran in 1953, aided despotism for decades, which in turn gave rise to the unfortunate leadership of today.

4. Simultaneously, conduct secret understandings between Iran and Israel for non-aggression and non-interference. This will be embraced by the serious leaders of intelligence and military in Israel who understand that they cannot have any meaningful victory if there is a military exchange with Iran, but can benefit enormously if there is a new set of understandings with Iran regarding Hezbollah, as well as a kind of new mutually assured deterrence doctrine worked. It worked with the Soviets and Americans, and with some serious negotiations, it can work in this case also.

5. Follow the lead of Iranian civil society, which wants human rights and democracy. This can be done by highlighting their causes aggressively and giving them world-wide coverage. This will annoy the reactionaries, but be embraced by the people, exactly what you want.

6. Embrace the Islamic Republic of Iran, just as there has been an embrace of numerous Sunni Islamic republics far less democratic than Shia Iran, but with a clear commitment to the Islamic voices of Iran that have embraced international engagement, human rights and peace, including past presidents and major religious leaders far more moderate than the current regime.

All of this could be in exchange for acceptance of an open Iranian embrace of nuclear power together with destruction of any and all secret nuclear weapons programme, and subject to international monitoring.

These suggestions seem challenging in light of the current political realities in Washington, the intimate alliance with Israel and with Saudi Arabia, and their powerful lobbies. But if we do not even articulate what would make Washington a better international pioneer of stability and reduction in global tensions, then we do our imaginations a disservice. We at least need to acknowledge some realities before bowing to political imprisonment. It is a reality that Israel and Saudi Arabia will be far safer with the path outlined, but neither seems to have the vision or the political will to change course. It is a reality that generalized sanctions, and certainly, bombings will rally the Iranian people in the opposite direction from the progressive direction that they have been heading. It is a reality that when the US and other Western countries openly embrace the rights and needs of Muslim peoples, they immediately respond with support, but they do the opposite when shot at, even for legitimate reasons. Iranian Muslims know the difference between pressure that gets them killed and pressure that embraces their needs. So should we.

© Marc Gopin