Hijacking the Iran Sanctions

Word from Tehran and Washington is that the nuclear dispute might be resolved soon after the U.S. elections, assuming President Obama wins. But some American neocons are hoping that whatever the result on Nov. 6, they can hijack the sanctions policy for “regime change,” as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Tear gas can stimulate the salivary glands of people hungry for regime change, even if those people belong to a different country and are thousands of miles away from the streets where the gas canisters are being fired. This may become one of the effects of protests in Tehran by money changers and bazaaris upset over the collapse of the Iranian currency.

Whether the protests expand into anything politically significant is unpredictable. They may be too narrowly aimed at the lame-duck president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to become a serious challenge to the regime. What is more predictable is the reaction of anti-Iran activists in the West (and Israel).

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

An immediate reaction from those stoking the idea of a military attack on Iran has been to warn people away from the “sanctions are working” idea while nonetheless calling for still more sanctions. Don’t be surprised to hear as an additional argument (despite any logical inconsistency with the first argument) that it would be a mistake to let up the pressure on Iran, regardless of what it does in negotiations over the nuclear issue, at a time when the mullahs’ regime seems to be teetering and there is hope for being rid of that regime once and for all.

Resistance to any lessening of sanctions as part of a negotiated agreement with Iran on the nuclear question has, unfortunately, already been strong, even before the newest protests. That resistance has been reflected in the relatively inflexible negotiating posture to date of the United States and its partners of the P5 +1.

A hope in some quarters that economic pressure will hasten the demise of the current Iranian regime no doubt is one of the causes of that resistance, even though that is not explicitly an official objective of the sanctions. The more that street protests in Tehran sustain that hope, the stronger is likely to be resistance in the United States to any sanctions relief, and the more politically difficult it will be for any American administration to strike a nuclear deal, which would require such relief.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in noting the multiple reasons for Iran’s economic failures, said on Wednesday, “Of course the sanctions have had an impact as well, but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian government were willing to work with the P5+1 and the rest of the international community in a sincere manner.”

That is a good description of how the sanctions are supposed to be used. Sadly, it does not describe how the P5+1 have used them so far in the negotiations.

As the history of the USSR (consistent with how George Kennan envisioned it in the 1940s) illustrates, there need be no contradiction between engaging and striking deals with a regime we don’t like, and seeing that regime crumble as a result of its own internal weaknesses. There is a contradiction in any attempt to use the same policy instruments (in this case sanctions) both to influence a regime’s policies and to try to topple it.

The inflexible application of pressure in pursuit of the toppling objective renders unusable the same sort of pressure as leverage, which requires flexibility, to elicit changes in policy. To the extent inflexible application continues to be the case with the approach toward Iran, the resulting stalemate will of course be interpreted as an indication of Iranian obduracy, whereas in fact it is an indication of confusion in the use of our own policy instruments.

Holding out hope that sustained pressure will hasten regime change in this case represents a bad bet. It means placing trust in a very uncertain process, notwithstanding the tear gas in Tehran streets, while jettisoning an important tool that if properly used would help lead to an agreement that would satisfy all legitimate concerns about nuclear proliferation as it pertains to Iran.

Even if regime-change-wishers had a better bet to make, they need to think hard about what they are wishing for. Much of what they don’t like about Iran is not unique to the Islamic Republic and would continue under any imaginable successor regime.

That includes the current nuclear program, which began under the Shah and has broad public support. It also includes many other things, including opposition to Israeli policies in the region.

We should have learned some things in this regard from our regime-changing experience in Iraq, where the regime we have been left with is narrowly sectarian, increasingly authoritarian, and pro-Iran.

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.)


7 comments for “Hijacking the Iran Sanctions

  1. F. G. Sanford
    October 4, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    “We should have learned some things in this regard from our regime-changing experience in Iraq, where the regime WE have been left with is narrowly sectarian, increasingly authoritarian, and pro-Iran.”

    WE have been left with? Excuse me, but there are only two issues that concern the United States in the Middle East. One is the price of oil, and the other is our pathological relationship with Israel. WE would be ahead geopolitically to break the pathological relationship. And, if we stopped meddling in their affairs, WE could cut the defense budget by 50%. This statement acknowledges that our policy in the Middle East is essentially imperialism, and WE deserve exactly the regime WE got. WE could swallow our pride, buy oil from Venezuela, and reduce the price at the pump by a drastic amount. Why pretend that WE are not spending billions on defense to prop oil company profits and maintain the status of the petrodollar? I’m really getting sick of hearing esoteric explanations of geopolitical policy struggles that tap dance around the reality that should be as plain as the nose WE keep sticking where it doesn’t belong.

    • jerry gates
      October 5, 2012 at 7:01 am

      F.G. Sanford articulates the frustrations of many if not most learned and well studied detractors of the US and Israeli led NATO advancing of battle lines against their various phantom menaces.

      People who do their homework understand what perhaps most distracted world citizens do not. Many upper echelon investment groups greedy individuals and corporate growers of their own gardens of wealth dont give a shit about politics, they care about their own fattened wallets and keeping that filled with money which makes these people feel secure.

      Iranians do it, Arabs do it, Jews do it, Christians do it and atheists do it, It,s called selfishness. This might seem simplistic to some but the underlying destructiveness of the brutality of NATO selfishness and that of their various allies world wide is a contagious human disease that potentially self destructs empires rather than enhancing their holdings and grass roots citizen support.

      Turning citizens against their regimes in power is the lazy sluggards way of life that doesn’t require much thought or foresight, the bully picking on those they hope to keep weaker than themselves to buoy false pride, a sense of control and their dominance over the weak.People gossip, lie, deceive and distort information and sentiments to divide friends to make it easier to dominate lessor unified aspirants to individual freedom of self expression. The Homeland security complex, Polands once vaunted Stasi and the election commission in charge of US debates limit information, sew seeds of doubt among friends and hide information which could be useful to citizens, and this is all done for one purpose, full spectrum domination by bullies far to stupid to use love, compassion and basic human grace to build their kingdoms, so they take the low road of sedition, which is basically the most horridly selfish way of life on the planet and to be sure has drawn deep scorn and hatred to it’s purveyors and acolytes.

      Iranian Mullahs aren’t perfect in their rulership of Iran, but if we look at Israel some NATO EU nations and the US for signs of perfection in governance we perhaps have to admit that our morality pales on comparison to the Mullahs morality and rule which may be a sign not of self righteousness on the part of the zionist inspired tediousness of militant sedition by hard wired bullies but jealousy, the green with envy human fault line where the immoral covet the decency of the moral.

      Prophets of old saw this as the Achilles heel of Israel of old and admonished vehemently their pharisees and slovenly clerics to be moral people and leaders rather than destroying the morality of their subjects and enemies which is very wise counsel from spiritually oriented moralists of their day. Today morality has become obscured by excuses for graft grifters and charlatans of every ilk in the Wests many pundits gardens of reaping. God and Jesus, Mohammed and the modern day prophets would surely agree that the zionists are as Jesus parable avers, trying to pick the mote from brothers eye with a blinding board within their own eyes, this board is the Achillies heel of Israel for millenniums and has yet to consult the proper authority to advise in it;s extraction.

      Love conquers all, not false pride.

  2. October 5, 2012 at 9:11 am

    The Zioconservatives in their treason or ignorance don’t want to tell the American public what they mean by pro-USrael regime-change. The vast majority of Americans and the westerners are ignorant of the fact that the Presidency in Iran is totally different than in the United States. The President of Iran cannot assume the powers of a “civilian dictator” just because the majority of Congress and Senate (AIPAC poodle) is behind him – as is the case these days in America. Under Iranian Constitution, the President is a public representative, whose duty is to help the Supreme Leader run the affairs of the country on daily basis with the Majlis (parliament) consultations.

    The Supreme Leader, under the Constitution, controls all four branches of Iran’s Armed Forces, Judiciary and appoints a few representatives in each of the governing bodies. In other world, the Ziocons’ (mostly Jewish dual citizen) dream of “regime change” will only work if the ‘foundation’ of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Supreme Leader, is removed – as they failed to do during 8-year Saddam’s invasion of Iran. During that period, most of these Ziocons (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Kristol, Bolton, Kissinger, etc.) were supporting Saddam Hussein.

    The US-Iran “friendship”, which is needed more by the US for its strategic interests, than Iran – will only materialized when Ayatullah Khamenie or the next “Imam” believe that Washington’s intentions are good for Iran’s national interests.


    • MA
      October 6, 2012 at 11:44 am

      Plant and protect a Saudi or Kuwaiti or Qatari or Behraini Shah in Israel; sanction Israel like you sanction Iran; don’t let any Zionist near power achelones in US as you do with Muslims and then I’ll see how Israel makes theseprogresses you are so proud of.

    • paschn
      October 12, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      In the spirit of your comment, let’s peruse yet another list of the many “contributions” to a better world;


      Revealing, eh?

  3. bobzz
    October 5, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Sanctions never work on the leaders of the state or the military. They create misery only for innocent, ordinary citizens. And the rebound is more enemies for those applying the sanctions.

  4. paschn
    October 7, 2012 at 2:50 am

    I don’t donate to biased “news” agencies….bye.

Comments are closed.