Last Saturday, despite the new sanctions being proposed by the U.S. and EU against Iran’s nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced defiantly: “In coming days we will witness [the] opening and operation of new nuclear projects in Iran.” He further declared on the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution: “The world should know that despite all pressures, Iran will not withdraw one inch from its principles and rights.” He thus spurned the new sanctions reminding the West: “All countries have put pressure on us for not obtaining nuclear know-how, but all these pressures were futile.”
Are sanctions futile, as Ahmadinejad has tried to assert? According to a major report on Feb. 8 in The New York Times, the Obama administration still believes sanctions can be effective. The article reports U.S. officials telling Israel that it is important to give the new sanctions a chance either to force the Iranians back to the negotiating table or abandon the nuclear program altogether. The big question is whether the new sanctions, which for the first time threaten the sale of Iranian oil, can be expected, by themselves, to change Iranian behavior on the nuclear issue.
Iran has been under sanctions for a period of time. The U.S. began to institute sanctions in the 1980s, but the first sanctions adopted specifically against the Iranian nuclear program — which were backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution — were only instituted in 2007. These U.N. sanctions failed to stop Iran from enriching growing quantities of uranium over the last five years.
The most famous case in which economic sanctions appeared to completely change a regime’s behavior was with the apartheid government of South Africa. The U.N. Security Council began with a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa in 1977. Europe and the British Commonwealth imposed broad trade and financial sanctions in 1985. That year international banks began to hold back on short-term loans to South Africa, leading to a decline in the value of its currency.
But it was not until 1994 that South Africa formally dismantled apartheid and introduced a new constitution. That year Nelson Mandela won the elections to become the country’s first black president. In other words, sanctions took roughly nine years to have any real impact that forced South African policy to change. Using the South African timeline, and taking 2007 as the starting point in the Iranian case, one cannot expect to see a major change in Iranian behavior until 2016. In other words, sanctions take a long time to kick in.
Another recent case of sanctions was Iraq. At the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 687, which established a cease-fire between Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-led coalition that forced his forces out of Kuwait and defeated them. The resolution required Iraq to declare all its nuclear, biological, chemical and long-range missile weapons systems as well as to destroy them. Until these actions were verified by international inspectors, Iraq was not permitted to sell its oil to other countries.
In other words, Iraq was under international economic sanctions to force it to comply with U.N. demands with respect to its weapons of mass destruction. But despite these harsh U.N. sanctions, in the following 12 years, Saddam refused to fully cooperated with U.N. inspectors, who could not say he had destroyed all his prohibited weaponry. The sanctions did not produce the desired political result they were intended for. At the end of the day, the suspicion of Western intelligence services that Iraq still had these weapons was one of the reasons the U.S. and Britain launched the 2003 Iraq War.
In the Iranian case, the fact that, according to international precedents, sanctions can take nine or 12 years poses a serious problem. There is a debate among experts about how much time Iran needs to complete its nuclear program: Some say it is a matter of months before Tehran can produce weapons-grade uranium and perhaps two years until Iran can mount an operational nuclear warhead on a Shahab-3 missile that can reach Israel. But given the history of sanctions, it is doubtful the new sanctions against Iran can have a decisive impact on Iranian decision-making within the timelines that are currently being projected for Iran’s completion of key aspects of its nuclear-weapons program.
At the end of January 2012, the head of the CIA, Gen. David Petraeus, admitted that the new sanctions being proposed against Iran were already “biting” into the Iranian economy, but the critical question that still needed to be answered was whether the sanctions would force the Iranian regime to change its policy: “What we have to see now is how does that play out. What is the level of popular discontent inside Iran? Does that influence the strategic decision-making of the Supreme Leader and the regime?…” The problem is that authoritarian regimes like Iran’s generally don’t care if their population is suffering, unless their grip on power is about to be lost as a result.
One factor undoubtedly affecting Iranian decision-making is that, unlike U.N. sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, the new sanctions on Iran are not universal. Iran has been exporting 2.3 million barrels of oil per day, and Europe’s use of 600,000 barrels per day is likely to end by July. But China and India, which have refused to adhere to the new sanctions, are expected to continue to import close to 860,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil (combined). That is a huge hole in the sanctions regime.
Economic sanctions can be made to work, but not alone. There are synergies that have made them more effective in the past. For example, what helped change the calculations of South Africa’s apartheid government was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the relaxation of the threat from neighboring states, like Angola and Mozambique. The idea that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were Soviet proxies lost all credibility. Sometimes, the threat of force was critical for sustaining sanctions. After Saddam Hussein evicted UNSCOM arms inspectors from Iraq in 1998, the threat of a joint American-British air strike forced the Iraqi regime to take them back. If the new sanctions had been introduced in 2009, when Iran was facing an internal revolt, they could have had a decisive influence on Iranian decision-making.
The efficacy of sanctions against Iran is dependent on what they signify in the minds of Iranian leaders: If sanctions are perceived as representing the international community’s strong political will that can lead to even more severe steps, then they might have some impact. But if they are only perceived as a minimal action that the West adopted to show it is at least doing something, then sanctions are unlikely to effect any change. In the months ahead, Iran is likely to test the extent of the West’s commitment to the sanctions it is now proposing.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.