The myth of crippling sanctions
Tehran will get nukes if the world doesn’t get serious fast
The White House keeps waiting for “crippling sanctions” to have an impact on Iran’s nuclear program. It will be a long wait. This week at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, almost every speaker who addressed the Iran issue made reference to the need for “crippling sanctions.” President Obama and his supporters touted the White House claim to have already imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran. Republican presidential candidates and other administration critics said the current sanctions are not crippling enough. The term has become so overused that it is a cliche, and there is good reason to doubt crippling sanctions can even exist.
The term gained widespread usage in the 1950s when Arab states attempted to use the United Nations to impose crippling sanctions on the young state of Israel. The attempt failed, but the expression lived on. Since then, the word “crippling” has been attached to every real or proposed sanctions regime from Indonesia in the 1960s to Iraq in the 1990s. Sometimes sanctions have had an impact, sometimes not, but there are no good cases of a country being driven to its knees.
Even if sanctions bite, they don’t necessarily interrupt weapons development. The operative example is North Korea. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Pyongyang faced a shifting array of sanctions and incentives geared toward dissuading the development of a nuclear weapon. North Korea was crippled to begin with; then, as now, North Korea was among the poorest countries in the world. Pyongyang was determined to develop atomic weapons and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. The lesson that should have been learned is that even in a destitute country where the people have been reduced to eating grass, if the leadership devotes sufficient resources to weapons development, it can achieve nuclear capability.
Iran faces asset seizure, financial restrictions, oil boycotts and various designations of supporting terrorism. These measures arguably have had some impact on Iran’s economy, but not to the point where they will be “crippling.” Perhaps they could be called annoying, or aggravating, but those terms hardly have the same ring. Unlike North Korea, Iran has a solid position in the global energy market, a functioning economy and strong international backers in Russia and China. Tehran also can count on benefiting from Pyongyang’s experience and expertise in nuclear-weapons development. The idea that sanctions could be crippling enough to dissuade the mullahs from achieving their objective of possessing nuclear weapons defies both logic and experience.
It is unlikely that sanctions have driven the mullahs to the bargaining table. Iran’s new offer for talks is a delaying tactic, a means of forestalling the use of force. Tehran’s best move is to begin an interminable round of negotiations to blunt the momentum for military action. As diplomats congratulate themselves on fictional victories for peace, Iran’s nuclear program would continue. That’s the reality of nonmilitary solutions. The only thing sanctions are crippling right now is movement toward an effective solution to Tehran’s nuclear aspirations.