Punishing Iran, Endlessly

With U.S. politics locked in a competitive “tough-guy-ism” as Republicans and Democrats up the ante on punishing Iran to avoid being deemed “weak” or insufficiently “pro-Israel” no one seems to notice that the tactics are fast becoming an end in themselves, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Here we go with another round of Americans on different parts of the political spectrum trying to outdo each other in pushing for more pressure and punishment on Iran. As usual, all this pushing is almost totally devoid of any attention to exactly how the pressure and punishment are supposed to accomplish anything useful or to why they haven’t accomplished more than they have so far.

In coverage of the most recent legislative intensification of the pressure, on which the White House cooperated with Republicans and Democrats in Congress, one searches in vain for any sign of understanding of the basic principle that sanctions can only be one-half of any attempt to influence another government and that as long as Western negotiators fail to couple Iranian concessions with any significant relief from sanctions, the Iranians lack incentive to make concessions no matter how much pressure they feel.

As a Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney has pushed for a harder and harder line on Iran. (Photo credit: mittromney.com)

And don’t even bother searching for signs of attention to why the contingency that supposedly is driving all this, a still nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapon, should be such an obsession, beyond repeated chants of the mantra that, to use the words of one presidential candidate, it would be “the greatest threat to the world.”

Pressure on Iran has long ago passed the point of becoming a seemingly mindless, endless exercise in pressure for pressure’s sake. In the absence of any attention to the role of Western negotiating rigidity or flexibility, we have the spectacle of people calling for more of something that they themselves acknowledge isn’t working.

Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, notes that the goal of the sanctions is to change the political calculus of Iran’s leadership and then observes, “There’s no evidence to date that the sanctions have achieved that objective.”

A statement the White House released on Tuesday proudly enumerates at length all the ways the administration has inflicted pain on Iran but, apart from noting how a few of the more focused sanctions have directly impeded nuclear activities, says nothing about what any of this is accomplishing, or could hope to accomplish.

There is not a word about the critical role of negotiating positions. It is as if the economic pain is a good in itself, which it isn’t, for Iran, for the United States or for anyone else.

The sanctions story has been pushed so hard for so long that politicians are running out of creative ways to exert more pressure. One of the latest offerings is from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, who, evidently stimulated by reports of military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, suggests stoking ethnic Azeri nationalism in northwest Iran as a way of frightening Iranian leaders with the threat of U.S. aid for “the legitimate aspirations of the Azeri people for independence.”

The dumbness of this idea is explained by Farideh Farhi, who asks us to “imagine a member of a parliament from another country sending out a letter to their government asking for support to be given to Hawaiian nationalists or for the return of California to Mexico.”

Another consideration is that most Azeri Iranians are far too integrated into the social and political fabric of Iran to think in separatist terms. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is half Azeri, and opposition leader and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi is wholly so.

Perhaps an even better analogy in the U.S. context would be someone promoting the separation from the union of Massachusetts in order to realize the legitimate aspirations of Irish-Americans for independence.

When future historians try to make sense of the pressure madness, a nonexistent nuclear weapon is not likely to be much of the explanation, because that simply does not make sufficient sense of the phenomenon. The current role of Israel in American politics clearly provides much of the explanation (and for an especially crisp description of that role, see Thomas Friedman’s recent column).

Americans probably also are receptive to the Israeli message because the demonization of Iran helps to fulfill a historically conditioned need for foreign dragons to confront and to slay.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “Punishing Iran, Endlessly

  1. Kenny Fowler
    August 5, 2012 at 20:38

    ” A statement the White House released on Tuesday proudly enumerates at length all the ways the administration has inflicted pain on Iran but — apart from noting how a few of the more focused sanctions have directly impeded nuclear activities — says nothing about what any of this is accomplishing, or could hope to accomplish.”

    That’s the problem with sanctions, they don’t really work. Especially when there’s no real goal to accomplish. Iran does not have and is not trying to make nuclear weapons. The hysteria being created by Netanyahu and the neocons is part of their attempt to con the U.S. into a war with Iran.

  2. August 5, 2012 at 19:51

    the usa not just a colony …. a slave country of the zionist jews these jews are trash. god if you exist plesea wipe out the jews so no one is to blame.

    • Kelvin
      August 13, 2012 at 07:56

      I will ask Jesus that he wipes you out, you are the trash, by the way your name is “Dani-EL” (God gives me) “El” as in Hebrew “Elohim”, He will give you what you deserve.

  3. Louis J Profeta
    August 5, 2012 at 17:59

    Nuclear weapons are planted everywhere on this earth, the only earth there ever was or will be and we can realize our own miracle of all the galaxies ever seen, you and I are unique, kiss this earth son.Settle things don’t excite them or we all will be ash.There is NO option, no choice but compromise for this world has been armed by man and ready, WMD!

    • August 5, 2012 at 19:55

      the zionist Jews & the US are the only nuclear Treat …they have used them & are the only one that are spupid enought to use these rerible bombs agin ” Blackmail ,others to steal land, & resourses.

  4. Louis J Profeta
    August 5, 2012 at 17:47

    Guys, stop the war drama and act like adults in uniform, get a perspective of peaceful men at a table that’s very hot.

  5. NO NAME
    August 5, 2012 at 15:24

    Iran has no threat, it is just America’s obsession.
    Ron Paul put it the best possible way:
    He Blasts Congress Iran Sanctions Bill, Calls It Obsession with Iran Act.
    BTW, Paul R. Pillar, a spy for the CIA is a visiting professor at Georgetown university? What an academic spy guy embedded to the America’s universities!

    • August 5, 2012 at 19:48


  6. Chipper
    August 5, 2012 at 14:54

    Professor Pillar has hit the nail on the head. Our current do no good congress is more intersted in protecting Israel than helping their own American constituents. They clamor to see who can better “protect” Israel than Israelites. This talk of “Existential Threat” is nothing but to get US into another ME war. I guess I would be making as much noise as Bibbi does, if it was blood and treasure of another country that would be spilled for my cause. I guess we have not learned enough from invading another country.

    • August 5, 2012 at 19:46


  7. Jim
    August 5, 2012 at 14:00

    There is NO THREAT. It is an Israeli attempt to dismantle another country that obstructs it’s hegemonic intentions of controlling the oil and gas resources in the ME and Caspian Basin, which will then allow it to control and extract the most wealth and power from the rest of the world.

    They must be discarded and DE-legitimized before they start WW3.

    • August 5, 2012 at 19:45

      You are obsolutely RIGHT ON THESE JEWS ARE NOTHIMNG BUT TUGS <THIEVES ETC… LETS HOPE THAT THE are the one that will be wiped out what a bunch of Trash the ZIONIST & THE REDNECKS ARE!!!!!!!!!

Comments are closed.