Assessing the Iran Sanctions

With a reasonable compromise within reach on Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration pulled back, apparently fearing domestic political fallout. The result means a likely painful stalemate for the foreseeable future, as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett describe.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

The Obama administration and other sanctions advocates claim that U.S.-instigated sanctions against the Islamic Republic are meant to achieve a range of objectives (changing Iran’s “nuclear calculus,” getting Iran “back to the negotiating table” and making it “negotiate in good faith,” strengthening the “credibility and leverage” of “pro-engagement camps” inside Iran, preventing military action by the United States and Israel, “political signaling” at home and abroad, and maintaining “unity” within the P5+1).

Appearing on HuffPost Live earlier this month, Flynt pointed outthat, in fact, U.S.-instigated sanctions against Iran are achieving virtually none of the objectives sanctions proponents claim they are intended to achieve: “Other than, possibly, sanctions as a stand-in for military action by the United States or Israel, other than that I don’t think the sanctions are working to achieve any of the objectives.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

More pointedly, Flynt took on the analytic conclusions and policy recommendations regarding U.S. sanctions policy advanced by National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi, who also appeared on the HuffPost Live segment with Flynt, and a recent NIAC study on sanctions.

We have long criticized NIAC’s position on sanctions, favoring “targeted sanctions” against the Iranian government while claiming to oppose broad-based sanctions that impact ordinary Iranians, as an intellectually incoherent and politically hypocritical posture that enables the Obama administration’s illegal, morally offensive, and strategically counter-productive sanctions policy.

Now Parsi and NIAC are trying to help the administration figure out how to make this illegal, morally offensive, and strategically counter-productive policy more “effective.”

More specifically, Flynt pushed back against Parsi’s argument that, while sanctions have put “a tremendous amount of pressure on [the Iranian] economy,” they have not “changed the calculus of the Tehran regime” on the nuclear issue, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has a “strong and dominant narrative” that “depicts the West as being invariably against Iran’s development, that this is actually not about the nuclear program, it’s about the West trying to subdue Iran, making it dependent.”

For sanctions to alter Tehran’s nuclear calculus, Parsi holds, the Obama administration needs to shape “a countervailing narrative to this.”

Responding to this argument, Flynt notes, “Trita has framed it in terms of the Supreme Leader having a ‘narrative’ about what sanctions say about U.S. intentions toward Iran and that there needs to be some sort of countervailing narrative. In fact, there’s not a countervailing narrative because, in many ways, the Supreme Leader’s narrative about the nuclear issue and about America’s ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic [is] not wrong.

“The Supreme Leader has said, just within the last couple of weeks, if the United States wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, it’s very easy: recognize Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment, stop trying to get them to suspend, stop trying to get them to go to zero enrichment and we can have a nuclear deal.

“But the Obama administration, even though it’s had multiple opportunities to make clear that that’s where it wants to go, refuses to do that. Its stated position is it still wants to get Iran to a full suspension, stop enriching uranium. And as long as that’s the case, there is no countervailing narrative that can be had; the Supreme Leader’s narrative is actually validated.”

Flynt goes on to underscore that “the way the sanctions have been drawn up, and the fact that whereas even just a few years ago, most of them were imposed by executive orders (which are more or less at the discretion of the White House), but now most of the sanctions have been written into law,” belies the proposition that sanctions are somehow intended to promote a diplomatic solution:

“If you actually look at the language in the bills, that these are the conditions Iran would have to meet in order for the President to be able to say ‘we’ve satisfied these conditions and I’m therefore lifting sanctions’, the Islamic Republic could allow the U.S. government to come in, dismantle every centrifuge in Iran, cart them back to [the U.S. nuclear laboratory at] Oak Ridge (like Qadhafi in Libya did), and there would still not be a legal basis for lifting the sanctions.

“[The Iranians would also] have to stop talking to, dealing with groups like Hizballah and HAMAS, that we want to call terrorist groups, and they basically have to turn themselves into a secular liberal democracy in order to meet our standards on ‘human rights.’ The President can’t lift them, even if the Iranians surrender to him on the nuclear issue. So the idea that this is somehow meant to encourage a diplomatic outcome that’s just not real.”

With regard to the impact of sanctions, another HuffPost Live panelist, Sune Engel Rasmussen, a Danish journalist who has reported from Tehran, points out that, “in living standards, Iran is not a developing country, and it’s a lot more affluent than many of the neighboring countries.

“If you were in Tehran for a week, for example, except when you changed your money you might not get a sense of this insane inflation. Because you still have big billboards advertising clothes stores, you still have a lot of cars in the streets, people are still shopping, you still have people drinking three- or four-dollar cappuccinos in north Tehran. That doesn’t mean the average Iranian is not suffering

“But then when you talk about whether that leads to civil unrest, for example, then we also have to remember that many Iranians still remember an eight-year war with Iraq, when they were living on food stamps. So they’ve seen a lot more suffering than they’re seeing now.”

Picking up on Sune’s observations, Flynt elaborated on the impact of sanctions, including their indirect contribution to Iranian economic reform: “Anyone who has been in Tehran recently, you can talk to people and definitely get a sense of how sanctions are making daily life harder for more and more people. But the idea that the economy is collapsing is just not borne out by on-the-ground reality.

“It’s also worth pointing out, and I’ve had any number of Iranians, official and otherwise, say this to me, that sanctions, in some ways, actually help Iran, in that they give the government a kind of political cover to take some steps toward what you might call economic reform, that would be politically difficult otherwise.

“Iran has done more to expand non-oil exports, it is less dependent on oil revenues for both its government budget and to cover its imports, than any other major oil-exporting country in the Middle East. It has done far more in that kind of diversification than Saudi Arabia or any of the states on the other side of the Persian Gulf

“[Take] the issue of the devaluation of the currency: the Iranian riyal has been overvalued for at least a decade, but no Iranian government has been able or willing actually to let the riyal come back to something like its natural value. Now, because of sanctions, this has happened. And as a result, Iran’s non-oil exports have become much more competitive, and are growing. In percentage terms, they can now cover 50-60 percent of their imports with non-oil exports.”

Finally, on the question of whether sanctions amount to economic war against Iran, Flynt says, “We’re at war, and it’s not just an economic war. We’re engaged in cyber-attacks against high-value Iranian targets, we’re sponsoring covert operations by groups inside Iran that, in any other country in the world, we would call terrorist operations. We are definitely waging war against the Islamic Republic.”

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of the new book, Going to Tehran. Direct link:

12 comments for “Assessing the Iran Sanctions

  1. John Puma
    April 19, 2013 at 01:25

    To Hossein:

    You may be interested in this if you have not already seen it: “Basic Statistics for US Imperialism”

    • mich
      April 19, 2013 at 02:40

      Interesting. But unless I missed them a few things were missed:

      (1) Compelling Japan to attack Pearl Harbor at a time predetermined by the US. On this, see MacArthur’s reaction to news of the attack in “The Untold Story of Douglas MacArthur” (author forgotten).

      (2) Extending the length of WW2 by assisting the KMT, who were concerned only with fighting the Communists and lining their pockets, instead of assisting the Communists who were fighting the Japanese. Opening the way, of course, to trying out a new bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      (3) Authorizing the Israeli attack on USS Liberty close enough to Egypt for the Egyptians to be blamed. Regrettably,
      despite the best endeavors of US high command to see it didn’t happen, some of the crew survived, so it didn’t work and the US was unable to attack Egypt in the 1967 war.

  2. Hossein
    April 17, 2013 at 09:27

    This statement will clarify it all,

    “The western media and the US Congress comprise the two largest whore houses in human history.”

    • mich
      April 18, 2013 at 06:29

      True, but why? Why do the population at large prefer the whores, and honest news media not have a sufficient following?
      How can it come about that the US Congress, in a supposedly democratic system, is a whorehouse?

  3. rosemerry
    April 17, 2013 at 02:03

    Sanctions are vicious and evil, but as in Cuba and Iran, may help a country be more independent and able to resist the pernicious influence of US capitalistic greed.

  4. Don Bacon
    April 16, 2013 at 22:27

    Assessing the Iran Sanctions — Let’s simplify it.

    1. Sanctions have not influenced Iran nuclear policy in favor of the West, in fact they have done the opposite. Iran has abandoned the Additional Protocol and the Brazil-Turkey 20% enrichment deal because of sanctions. Iran has also expanded, protected and modernized its uranium enrichment facilities. In recent testimony, DNI Clapper said: “Iran is growing more autocratic at home and more assertive abroad.”

    2. Sanctions have strengthened Iran’s economy, weaning it off reliance on petroleum exports. This has been a case of “tough love” for Iran, forcing them to modernize and expand domestic industries and diversify exports as Iran has been weaned off of oil exports. A good thing, actually. Iran now exports gasoline and electricity, as well as natural gas and refined petroleum products.

    3. The US “crippling sanctions” are on trade, and trade involves another party besides the target country. Most of the Iran sanctions that have been observed have adversely affected Europe, contributing to a terrible financial situation for many companies large and small. Example: Peugeot, which had to pull out of Iran. Peugeot has had to lay of people and sell assets. The European Union was a primary trading partner of Iran. Now the EU is in danger of breaking up, not entirely due to “Iran sanctions” but they have contributed.

    4. Internationally, in contrast with the U.S. story that the “world community” supports the West, and “Iran is isolated,” Iran has many trading partners, particularly in East Asia where the growth is, friends that disregard U.S. sanctions. Also Iran is now head of the Non-Aligned Movement, 125 nations. Iran’s refusal to bow to U.S. interests has set an example of defiance and has motivated other countries to do the same. So we see other countries as renegades against U.S. world hegemony, including china, Russia, Brazil.

  5. mich
    April 16, 2013 at 21:08

    What is so sad and so calamitous for the planet is that the United States has a political system that requires and compels every president to become evil and a champion of evil. I don’t think Obama is privately a nasty guy, but he is one of a succession who have created this purely imperialistic confrontation with Iran. He is no worse and no better than Ike who destroyed the Iranian secular democracy, or the succession of US presidents who have actually created the current Iranian system of government, which itself is simply defending the Iranian independence which is its major achievement.

    Similar comments could be made about the endless conflict in Palestine in which the occupiers have been able to defeat reconciliation with the occupied for 60 years. Totally unnatural. Because anything else carries domestic political negatives in the USA.

    What could be a more spectacular demonstration of the failure and the evil of the US idea of democracy?

  6. Morton Kurzweil
    April 16, 2013 at 21:06

    Very wordy indeed. The threat is having another Islamist state producing fissionable materials and technology for use by other unstable governments and terrorist groups that would act as separate entities doing the bidding of Iran.
    The inference that Islam, Shiite or Sunni. Ommyad or Abbasad is anything but a continuation of Caliphate history with modern weapons is insanity.
    The Muslim who will kill for his God, the Muslim who would kill for his Prophet, has a God who is not all knowing and all powerful. Such a Muslim fears his neighbors and respects no one.
    The great teachers and masters of philosophy and science are the builders of peace and prosperity. They are the people who have lived in peace with their neighbors for centuries. It is the political anarchists who deny the true faith and care nothing for the lives and happiness of their subjugated peoples.

    • mich
      April 16, 2013 at 21:35

      Correct only in part. Iran is a large independent nation. Its religion is none of your business. Yes, Islam is like that, a fake religion, really a control system (hence “submission”), based on war, but history shows that the record of the United States in international affairs is far, far more evil that of Iran, and religion has nothing to do with that. You don’t need to look further than Central and South America, but you can if you like, it’s everywhere.

      Once, every Iranian loved the United States. Every Moslem in Iran loved the United States. The change did not come about on account of anything any Iranian did.

    • rosemerry
      April 17, 2013 at 02:01

      For you of all people to talk about wordy! As for respect, and God, think about the USA and its socalled christians and Jews. Muyslims have nothing on the violence perpetrated by the “international community”.

    • Hossein
      April 17, 2013 at 09:23

      Morton, please get your head out of your butt.

      Why I label the US as a Warring Nation:
      US Wars since WWII:
      Korean War (1950-1953)
      Lebanon crisis (1958)
      Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961)
      Dominican Intervention (1965)
      Vietnam War (1957-1975)
      Operation Eagle Claw (1980)
      Grenada Conflict (1983)
      Beirut Conflict (1982-1984)
      Panama Invasion (1989)
      Persian Gulf War (1990-1991)
      Somalia: Operation Restore Hope (1992-1993)
      Kosovo War (1996-1999)
      Yugoslavia Conflict (1999)
      War on Terrorism (2001–present)
      War in Afghanistan (2001-present)
      Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines (2002)
      Liberia peacekeeping (2003)
      Iraq War (2003-present)
      Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and counting!
      Who’s next? Iran? OMG!!!

    • Don Bacon
      April 17, 2013 at 12:47

      There is no evidence that Iran is the world’s prime sponsors of terrorism as the U.S claims. The most recent National Counterterrorism Center’s annual report, for 2011, doesn’t even mention Iran

      Sunni extremists accounted for the greatest number of terrorist attacks and fatalities for the third
      consecutive year. More than 5,700 incidents were attributed to Sunni extremists, accounting for nearly
      56 percent of all attacks and about 70 percent of all fatalities. Among this perpetrator group, al-Qa‘ida
      (AQ) and its affiliates were responsible for at least 688 attacks that resulted in almost 2,000 deaths, while the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan conducted over 800 attacks that resulted in nearly 1,900 deaths.
      Secular, political, and anarchist groups were the next largest category of perpetrators, conducting 2,283
      attacks with 1,926 fatalities, a drop of 5 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from 2010.

      Also —
      — 44 terrorists are described on the US National Counterterrorism Center’s (NCTC) annual calendar — but not one Iranian.
      — There is a full description of terror threats in the NCTC annual report : “Sunni extremists accounted for the greatest number of terrorist attacks and fatalities for the third consecutive year” etc. but not one mention of Iranians.
      — There are 29 “Most Wanted” terrorists on the FBI list but not one Iranian.

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