Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

More Sanctions Wouldn’t Have Stopped Iran

But one measure would have.

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine

iran-nuclearCritics of President Obama’s recent deal with Iran have rejected the president’s assertion that the only alternative to his deal is war. They think that more aggressive sanctions could have changed Iran’s behavior, given the economic costs the current sanction regime has inflicted. A corollary to this argument assumes that the majority of Iranians are pro-American and sick of the puritanical and corrupt mullahcracy and its willful isolation of the country from the global order. Increase the pressure of sanctions, and this mass of discontent could ripen into regime change or at least a moderation of its behavior.

On the sanctions issue the defenders of the deal have a point. Support for the sanctions has been weakening for a long time, for the simple reason that the member countries of the P5+1 who negotiated the deal are salivating at the chance to profit from the end of sanctions and to access 77 million Iranian customers. Russia wants to sell Iran weapons, China wants to buy its oil, and European countries are already negotiating business deals with Iran. These negotiating “partners”–– except for Germany, all veto-bearing members of the U.N. Security Council responsible for the sanctions––are loath to maintain, let alone increase them. Nor would unilateral sanctions have much effect. For decades we’ve had restrictions on U.S. citizens and corporations doing business with Iran, a ban that did little or nothing to change Iran’s behavior. Going it alone is unlikely to be any more successful.

And let’s not forget the sorry history of the sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 90s, not to mention the inefficacy of the current sanctions against Russia or those that failed miserably to keep North Korea from getting the bomb. Like International Atomic Energy Association inspections, sanctions can be circumvented, particularly when the country is an oil producer and its rulers are autocrats indifferent to the suffering of their people. That was the case in Iraq, even though the U.S. controlled two-thirds of Iraq’s air space, and the country’s economic infrastructure had been ravaged by the war. France, one of the P5+1 countries, was doing a brisk business with Hussein despite the sanctions. And one of the attempts to keep the sanctions from harming ordinary Iraqis, the U.N. oil-for-food program, turned out to be a  $4 billion boondoggle for Hussein and the 11 Frenchmen, including 3 government officials, caught up in the scandal. And like today, French oil companies were already negotiating billion-dollar contracts to develop two Iraqi oil fields once sanctions were lifted. By 2003, the pressure by our allies and Russia to end the sanctions had weakened their deterrent power. It’s hard to see how the same scenario wouldn’t unfold in Iran, a bigger, more developed country than Iraq.

No more convincing is the idea that a critical mass of Iranians is pro-Western, if not pro-American. As such they are eager to shed their fundamentalist clerical hegemons, and so continuing the sanctions would create an opportunity for regime change. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed recycled this widespread received wisdom about pro-American Iranians: “The majority of the Iranian public—60% of the 75 million population is under 35—is out of sync with its government [sic] views of the U.S., as evident in the nationwide celebration in the wake of the nuclear deal,” the author writes. That few people have much hard evidence for this assertion is revealed by the astonishing claim that the celebrations after the completion of the deal reflected pro-American sentiment. A much more believable explanation is that the people were cheering because of the promise of economic relief and the joy of seeing the Great Satan humiliated once again by the Shi’a faithful.

But what other evidence could there be for believing that a “majority” of Iranians are pro-Western? Opinion surveys give only a rough sketch, but few support that conclusion. In a 2012 Pew survey 83% of Iranians favored Shari’a law, and 66% thought religious leaders should have some or a large influence on politics, beliefs hard to square with positive feelings for secular America. Likewise an earlier 2011 Rand survey of Iranian attitudes concluded, “The findings suggest that many of the Islamic Republic’s policies, including opposition to U.S. interests and the pursuit of a nuclear civilian and (possibly) nuclear weapon capability, were supported by a significant portion of the Iranian population.” Contrary claims of widespread Iranian fondness for America are dubious when all we have to rely on is anecdotal evidence like a 2013 New York Times article headlined “How Young Iranians View America,” a unfounded extrapolation from the content of the reporter’s conversations with a mere handful of Iranians in Tehran.

The notion that a majority of Iranians are pro-American reflects what could be called the “fallacy of the capital.” Because Western news organizations and cameras are concentrated in capitals, where pro-Western people tend to be concentrated and thus easy to find, what goes on in the capital gets extensively reported and considered representative of the whole country. Remember in 2011 how excited some Westerners got over the tech-savvy and telegenic Westernized youth in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who were tweeting Egypt into liberal democracy? It wasn’t long before they were crowded out by the Muslim Brothers, who filled the square with chants of “Islamic, Islamic, neither secular nor liberal,” while a few dozen secular liberal activists cowered in a tent until they were driven away. In the end, Egypt returned to the same sort of illiberal military rule the protestors had rejected when they helped overthrow Mubarak.

This is not to excuse Obama for failing to vocally support the Iranians protesting the rigged 2009 presidential election, or to condemn vigorously the regime’s brutal crackdown. Nor does it mean that we should not be doing more to cultivate dissidents and to support groups working for regime change. It just means that we cannot base policy, as the current administration has, on the dubious assumption that most Iranians are against the mullahs and just need time for the regime to implode from its own tyranny and incompetence. The mullahs will have their bomb long before that happens.

The point is not, contrary to Obama, that full-scale war is the only alternative to stopping Iran. An incremental application of force in response to Iranian intransigence and stonewalling during negotiations––destroying the Arak nuclear reactor, for example––would have convinced Iran that there was a serious price to pay for their obstructionism, lying, and cheating on their obligations. Those who preach “force solves nothing” should remember the 1988 Tanker War, sparked by Iran’s threats to disrupt oil shipments transiting the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran backed off when Ronald Reagan retaliated for a missile attack on an American warship by eventually destroying two Iranian oil platforms, two Iranian ships, and six Iranian gunboats. But once Obama made clear in word and deed that even a limited military option was off the table, the mullahs were confident that they could ratchet up their demands, pocket the sanctions-relief payola, and achieve their aim a little later rather than sooner.

Of course, there would be consequences to such military actions, and no doubt the “world community” Obama prefers answering to instead of Congress would complain––a contingency that doesn’t seem to inhibit Russia and China from brutally pursuing their national interests. But inaction has its consequences as well. In the coming years we will find out just what the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran will be.

 

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

9 Thoughts on “More Sanctions Wouldn’t Have Stopped Iran

  1. Speaking for the great Satan, I say, “Hello.”

  2. Roy Digliani on July 22, 2015 at 10:08 am said:

    Re: Polls of the Iranian people.
    In a Totalitarian society like Iran’s are people really going to answer poll questions honestly?
    The polls are most likely worthless.
    Given the right leaders in Washington we might be able to stop Iran’s march to disaster but that’s obviously just one possibility.
    War is most likely unless someone in Iran revolts and changes the government.
    Progressives believe that bad guys won’t use nuclear weapons?
    It might be unimaginable to them but not to the bad guys.
    We dropped a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki no problem because we thought it
    was justified.
    Sanctions only make the Mullahs feel that they are victims and lust for revenge against the Great Satan.
    Will the Mullahs of Iran feel justified in dropping bombs wherever they
    want?
    Of course.
    70 million people died in WWII.
    Why would anyone think that an atomic war killing as many isn’t possible?
    It will happen and it will be bad.
    Iran will lose.
    All those wonderful brilliant handsome Persian people sacrificed by their
    ignorant evil leaders.
    Just like the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ……but this time some of
    us will be killed.
    Millions of us.
    Ultimately we’ll win but it will hurt.
    Obama is a stupid ignorant man.
    It’s funny how he thinks he’s the hero.
    The jokes on us.

  3. Mark Katzman on July 22, 2015 at 10:58 am said:

    I would tend to agree that a show of force would make a clear, strong impression on the mullahs in Iran. I believe (though it hasn’t been written about enough) that when the US took down Sadaam Hussein and occupied Iraq through the use of armed force, the mullahs were in fact quite worried that they would be next on the American radar. That would’ve been the time to force the cancellation of Iran’s nuke program. But Bush lacked the gumption to follow this through and make a case to Congress and the American People (those who aren’t brain-dead Leftists). A show of force such as Mr. Thornton is suggesting would also be very effective. But, who’s going to do that? Certainly not the limp-wristed man currently occupying the WHouse. The use of American power is absolute anathema to him. Such use of force would most certainly cause him to suffer a heart attack (combined with his smoking), and then he could sue probably in the courts for damages. The only way to ensure that Iran puts the brakes on its ambitions is for Israel to do something. If in fact they do possess an EMP capability, then perhaps they should use it? The clock is ticking and with each passing day Iran moves its nuclear program slowly but inexorably ahead.

  4. zygote314 on July 22, 2015 at 11:04 am said:

    Has anyone checked the time of the Doomsday Clock lately?

    Obama and the rest of the “Looney Left” not only think this deal will prevent Iran from getting the bomb, but see the real threat to the future of humanity as being global warming, not nuclear weapons in the hands of religious fanatics. Iran is the number one state sponsor of terror; it has declared its intentions to “wipe Israel of the map” and turn her into a “stinking corpse.” Iran is responsible for the death and injury of hundreds of American servicemen and is holding four American hostages, yet our weak, narcissistic president couldn’t care less.

    The sanctions should have been seen as only the first step towards destroying Iran’s nuclear program. If the mullahs remained defiant, the second step of overwhelming military force should have been used. Now all that Kerry’s groveling diplomacy appears to have achieved is nuclear proliferation, the rewarding of Iran with billions of dollars and sophisticated military hardware that will make the military option all but impossible, and a realization that America is a feckless world leader. Why does everything Obama touches always turn into dog poop?

  5. dupere on July 22, 2015 at 6:45 pm said:

    “” India, japan. U.S. plan naval exercises reuters.”” Fire retardant down the throat of the commie-dragon

  6. richard on July 22, 2015 at 6:57 pm said:

    These are good points. However, the Iranians do not need to create a bomb in order to dominate the Middle East. With oil income and trade sanctions lifted they will soon have the means to finance their aggression against the House of Saud whose destruction is essential to that dominance. At that juncture and in control of Saudi oil fields, the Iranians will have oil leverage over the world, certainly Europe, enough to demand Sharia. The Saudis will need the US and Europe to defeat the Iranians, or lacking that support at the critical hour, they will acquire the nuclear bomb and use it against Iran. The outcome of war either way is not much in doubt, but it will likely be the Saudis who use the bomb first. Unless of course the US finally does what is inevitable and destroys Iran in a conventional manner. Utterly. If Iran’s past is prologue, Obama has not kicked the can down the road, he has in fact shortened the road to total war, if not nuclear war, considerably. In what, less than five years?

  7. I had this debate on facebook and my pro-agreement partner brought up the idea that honoring Obama’s agreement was in Iran’s best interests and launched into the whole “westernized Iranian people” line. I countered with three bullet points, summarized below.

    1) Iran is not a democracy. The people, no matter how much they look to the West, have no say in how Iran is run. The crushing of the Green movement made that point very clearly. Iran will cheat on Obama’s agreement because the clerics want it that way.

    2) Even if we consult the people, the answer is more ambiguous than depicted. The idea of a nuclear Iran is very popular over there. The people didn’t like the sanctions of course, but who likes living under sanctions? If they can get sanctions lifted and still get a bomb developed, that’s a win-win to most Iranians.

    3) Iran has every reason to believe that it will not be held accountable for its actions. The threat of renewed sanctions is hollow. The sanctions coalition has fallen apart is is not going to re-form anytime soon. The threat of force is hollow given Obama’s unwillingness to back past talk with action combined with his near-breathless willingness to co-depend both Iran itself and other bad actors like Russia and China.

    Obama has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since tough sanctions were lifted in 2014, the only alternative to Obama’s agreement was/is war. Obama’s actions have undermined all middle-ground alternatives.

    The *only* option that keeps Iran non-nuclear is war.

  8. David Park on July 23, 2015 at 8:42 am said:

    Who can adhere tightly to a violent totalitarian religion and simultaneously be pro-Western or pro-U.S.? A holographic figment of liberal imagination!

  9. Carl Sesar on August 14, 2015 at 9:44 pm said:

    Obama is out to destroy Israel, which he hates like poison, and the United States, likewise.

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