For some, a tool to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for Tehran an illegitimate intrusion into domestic affairs: what is clear is that sanctions have, as yet, failed in diminishing dangerous tensions on the core question of whether Iran’s nuclear goals are military or merely civilian.
Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the efficacy and unintended consequences of sanctions and suggests steps that can be taken this week at Almaty and beyond to address the nuclear issue, start to unwind the sanctions regime and mitigate its humanitarian consequences. With war a frightening prospect and fruitful negotiations a distant dream, sanctions have become an instrument of choice in dealing with Iran. But too often their effectiveness is assessed by the harm they inflict, not how much closer they bring the goal.
“The Iranian case is a study in the irresistible appeal of sanctions, and of how, over time, means tend to morph into ends”, says Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Iran. “In the absence of any visible shift in Tehran’s political calculus, it is difficult to measure their impact through any metric other than the quantity and severity of the sanctions themselves”.
A key problem is that the West and Iran view sanctions through dissimilar prisms. EU and U.S. officials hope that the Islamic Republic eventually will conclude that persevering on the nuclear track will create sufficient economic hardships to trigger domestic discontent, threatening regime survival. But the world looks very different from Tehran. There, the one thing considered more perilous than suffering from sanctions is surrendering to them.
As a result, rather than adjusting its nuclear policy to remove the sanctions, the regime likely will continue to adjust its economic policy to adapt to them. While important regime constituencies have been harmed by international penalties, not all of them have been harmed equally, and some not at all. Evidence suggests that groups with superior contacts to the state have been able to circumvent sanctions and minimise damage to their interests. Average citizens, by contrast, suffer the effects: reports of widespread shortages, notably of specialised medicines, abound.
Moreover, sanctions as a tool of coercive diplomacy are only as effective as the prospect of relieving them in exchange for policy shifts is real. Yet, sanctions on Iran have become so extensive and so intricately woven that it will be hard to offer significant, concrete relief short of a major – and improbable – turnaround in major aspects of the Islamic Republic’s domestic and foreign policies. That, in addition to considerable mutual mistrust, leaves as the best case outcome for now a time-limited (albeit renewable) suspension or waiver of some sanctions by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) in exchange for time-limited (albeit renewable) Iranian steps providing reassurance as to the program’s peaceful intent.
The meeting at Almaty offers both sides an opportunity to start down this path. They could begin with a package that addresses the immediate issue of 20 per cent uranium enrichment before moving on to the question of the underground Fordow facility and, later, a more comprehensive agreement.
“The limited and at times counterproductive nature of sanctions against Iran does not mean they necessarily ought to be scrapped as a policy tool”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “But, at a minimum, those who deploy them should exhibit judiciousness in implementation; resist the impulse to pile on more sanctions when those already in place do not succeed; constantly assess and reassess their social and economic consequences; and preserve sufficient nimbleness so that they can be used – including through their removal – to advance negotiations in a diplomatic process where a scalpel, not a chainsaw, is required”.