Dialogue Series, Panels, Regional Studies
War by Other Means? Iran under Sanctions
On March 12, 2013, CIRS organized a panel discussion on the topic of “War by Other Means?Iran under Sanctions,” featuring Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS; Mansoor Moaddel, CIRS Visiting Scholar; and Manata Hashemi, CIRS Postdoctoral Fellow. The objective of the panel was to have a discussion on the nature of the sanctions and their consequences for both the Iranian individual and the state. Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS, began the panel discussion with a summary of the history of the sanctions imposed on Iran, as well as their effects on the lives of ordinary Iranians. He recounted that the sanctions were imposed on Iran by the United States and other Western governments in reaction to the US embassy hostage incident in 1979, and as a means of isolating the Islamic Republic in the subsequent years. It was only twenty years later, however, that the Clinton Administration passed the “Iran Sanctions Act,” which made the sanctions regime an integral part of US foreign policy. The sanctions “were not really codified until the 1990s when the United States became far more concerned about Iran’s nuclear program,” Kamrava explained. Thus, the strict sanctions were used as a means to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program did not progress due to import and export embargoes. “The assumption was that once Iran stops enriching its nuclear capabilities, then the sanctions would be lifted,” he maintained.
In later years, while the Bush Administration threatened Iran with the possibility of war, the Obama Administration reacted to the Islamic Republic by increasing sanctions that constricted Iran even further. “It is the Obama Administration that has been far more aggressive in terms of the sanctions regime,” Kamrava argued, because President Obama has been trying to keep the Republicans at bay by adhering to institutional and congressional means of engagement instead of attacking or invading Iran.
The problem with comprehensive and encompassing sanctions is that they do not always differentiate between civilian and military needs, Kamrava explained. The sanctions imposed on Iran rarely target only the state as these restrictive measures have devastating effects on the civilian population as well. What is termed “dual-use technology” includes a whole spectrum of technological goods that are integral to the enhancement of military capabilities and, yet, are also essential for basic civilian industries. Civilian air travel is one such example where lack of essential materials means that passenger carriers have steadily deteriorated over the decades and cannot be refurbished. Further, humanitarian items, such as medicines, are exempt from the sanctions regime, and, yet, because of the strict sanctions on the banking system, it is difficult to conduct any kind of financial transaction to attain them.
Quoting from a recent Gallop Poll that asked ordinary Iranians how the sanctions affect their daily lives, Kamrava reported that most answered that they were personally affected. Interestingly, however, although most agreed that the nuclear program was the main reason for the imposition of sanctions, they blamed the United States for their personal suffering. Thus, “the sanctions are actually having the opposite effect, as compared to what the United States intended,” he explained.
Kamrava ended by drawing four broad conclusions, including: “sanctions have become the favored US instrument of pressure;” “there is a self-perception of suffering among the Iranian people;” “there is a high level of support for the nuclear program;” and, finally, “the US is getting largely the blame for the Iranian predicament on the part of the Iranian people.”
Manata Hashemi gave the second presentation in which she analyzed how Iran’s social and economic landscapes have been severely affected by US and EU sanctions, leading to a decline in the value of the rial and a sharp increase in the price of daily goods. “It is not just imported goods that have seen a price increase, the price of goods that are produced locally have also increased as some merchants use the slide in the rial as an excuse to raise prices,” she explained. Further, output across the country has seen a decline because of the restrictive measures, which has, in turn, led to a slash in jobs and an increase in unemployment.
However, contrary to international media discourses reporting on the extreme suffering of ordinary Iranians in their daily lives, Hashemi explained how people – especially those in the lower echelons of society – are coping with, and navigating around, these restrictions. “We know that the sanctions have certainly bitten; they brought inflation and a collapse in the currency; they have harmed many economic prospects for ordinary people, and, not surprisingly, they solidified general sentiment against the West,” she argued. However, government organizations have developed a series of campaigns in which handouts and utilities have been distributed to those most in need. In conjunction with these official measures, “non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also contributed to mitigating the effects of sanctions by distributing non-cash material goods like clothes, school supplies, and other essentials to the poorest,” Hashemi contended.
People in the lower and middle echelons of society, do not simply wait for handouts, but get actively involved in bettering their own lives through a series of creative measures in order to soften the impact of the sanctions. Iranians have become more conscious of their spending habits and have transformed their shopping practices by purchasing locally produced goods that have been traditionally shunned as a sign of inferior quality and low social status. Other measures include taking on extra jobs – often in the informal market – or taking part in reciprocal exchange networks with family and friends. Hashemi said that “by allowing youths access to material possessions, not only do these types of clothing exchange networks help them keep personal expenses to a minimum, but, more importantly, they serve as a way for them to save face and to keep up their reputation among their peers.”
Hashemi ended by saying that people in Iran are not just finding ways to survive in a country so chocked by sanctions, but that they are striving for “the good life” and for a dignified life that is full of hope and aspirations. “Despite the hardships that the sanctions have posed, Iranians inside the county are finding ways to navigate around them to resist some of the more debilitating effects, and even to accrue small social and economic gains in spite of them,” she concluded.
Mansoor Moaddel was the final speaker and he ended the panel discussion by highlighting two major challenges to the Islamic Republic that “are capable of transforming the Islamic regime and contributing to the rise of moderate and democratic politics in Iran.” The first is the international community’s steadfast posture against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear policy and the second is a growing opposition movement within the country that is calling for liberal values and democratic governance. However, these two forces are not coordinated as the sanctions regime has overshadowed any other form of engagement with Iran. The irony, Moaddel said, is that the comprehensive sanctions have had more of a detrimental effect on democratic forces than it has on undermining the regime and its capabilities. Effectively, the “sanctions have undermined the private sector and the middle class, while enhancing the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards,” he explained.
Citing results of two polls conducted in Iran in 2000 and 2005, Moaddel said that there has been a major shift in the sentiments of ordinary Iranians towards liberal and nationalist values that stand in stark opposition to that of the ruling Islamic regime. Currently, a large percentage of Iranians value nationalism above religion as the basis for their identity. Moaddel argued that the international community’s lack of support for these new liberal attitudes is a missed opportunity.
There are a variety of alternative “smart” sanction models that could be pursued and others willing to support a change in strategy. Moaddel said that it was important to point out that not all interest groups in the US are in agreement that imposing sanctions on Iran is the best way of achieving objectives. While the Israeli lobby is keen on imposing ever more crippling sanctions, many US corporations are against them and more in favor of continuing trade relations with Iran. Moaddel argued that “effective sanctions, in my view, are ‘smart sanctions’ – those that effectively undermine the repressive capability of the regime, including the revolutionary guards, while enhancing the power of the democratic opposition.”
Western governments cannot see beyond their fears of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, when instead they should be encouraging the flourishing of civil society and the mobilization of the Iranian population towards calls for democratization. Moaddel concluded by saying that “the current crippling sanctions may in fact undermine the regime. They may at the same time destroy the organizations of the civil society and undermine the morale of the oppositions. Smart sanctions are good. Current crippling sanctions that are comprehensive and universal, which adversely affect the lives of all Iranians, are simply war by other means.”
Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor of CIRS Publications