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Sanctions on Iran aren't a substitute for policy

Critics argue that stronger sanctions will be useless, if not counter-productive, if violators are allowed to displace legitimate business actors.

Diplomacy with Iran has hit a wall. Whether it is because the regime in Tehran is too rigid, dysfunctional or distrustful or because the West pursued a mendacious and unfair approach, the talk is now about sanctions and the delicate western diplomatic efforts to reach a consensus at the UN Security Council. Western diplomats are reportedly designing a regime that would target the interests of the ruling clique in Tehran more narrowly. This is a complex challenge. Months of popular unrest have exposed the fissures in Iranian society and politics, so sanctions must achieve contradictory goals: cutting off the regime's access to sensitive technology while cajoling it to negotiate in good faith; undermining hardliners while empowering moderates.

With the sprawling economic reach of the Revolutionary Guards, now the backbone of the regime but also the custodians and patrons of its nuclear and missile programmes, the number of appropriate targets is expanding. But how to punish only those who control the levers of power? Many Iranian businesses are engaged, by necessity, in legitimate economic transactions with firms, which may be engaged in building civilian infrastructure and military installations at once.

There is ample evidence that UN sanctions since 2006 and unilateral US pressure have hit Iran's trading activities and investment prospects hard, but it is equally true that this had no noticeable impact on Iran's strategic direction. Existing sanctions are simply too weak and new ones can work as they did in Libya, say western diplomats. Critics argue that stronger sanctions will be useless, if not counterproductive, if violators are allowed to displace legitimate business actors.

Sanctions are often a controversial but feel-good tool. They offer a default choice when the alternatives are non-existent or unfathomable. When a war with Iran has very few (but vocal) cheerleaders sanctions are also meant to communicate to allies not to give up hope.But sanctions have a murky track record. In the well-publicised case of apartheid South Africa, multilateral sanctions led first to a change in behaviour of the Afrikaner regime and then quickly to its demise. With Libya, a complex dynamic that included diplomacy, back-room deal-making, coercion and sanctions led to a fundamental policy shift in Tripoli, which verifiably abandoned all its WMD plans. American sanctions against Cuba are the clearest example of a failed sanctions regime.

The US administration and its western allies say that they see sanctions as the necessary component of a dual-track strategy in which diplomacy remains the preferred instrument. But without making clear the cost of not talking seriously, the thinking goes, Iran will have no incentive to do so. Given Iran's 30-year resilience in response to other US sanctions and flaunting three UN resolutions, the danger is that once adopted, inertia will prevail and sanctions will become a substitute for policy rather than a tool to induce a tactical shift in Tehran. Imposing sanctions gradually to build a wider consensus also has the effect of allowing the targeted country to gradually adjust and find ways to circumvent them.

Opposition to UN sanctions comes mainly from China and, to a lesser extent, from Russia, two countries whose economic interests and suspicion of US intentions in the Middle East are proving formidable obstacles to western and Arab non-proliferation objectives. But it is perhaps more troubling that Turkey and Brazil are utterly unconvinced as well. That these two rising middle powers and democracies would choose to defy the current world order may be a taste of things to come.

The US is also looking into the future. Today's sanctions - whether mandated by the US Congress, endorsed by the EU as well or approved by the UN - may become the backbone of a future containment system of a nuclear-capable Iran. Of course, for the moment, the US and other countries stress that their goal is still to prevent Iran from becoming just that through diplomacy, but it is good stewardship to engage in contingency planning and think through what containment might look like.

The problem for the US and proponents of containment is one of perception as much as one of implementation. When Arabs hear containment they often remember Iraq. They recall the debilitating impact sanctions had on its politics and society, and the pernicious consequences of the oil-for-food programme that became yet another tool for Saddam Hussein to oppress its population.There are many differences between Iraq in 1991 and Iran in 2010. Back then, Iraq was a defeated, isolated country that had alienated the vast majority of its Arab neighbours. Iraq's swift military defeat had brought the US an unprecedented level of influence, and no great power could or would disagree with US policy in the Gulf.

The containment of Iran, if it ever happens, will be the fruit of policy failure, the admission that the preferred policy, prevention, has failed. Iran is much less isolated than Iraq was and it has allies in the region who share the notion that the tide of history is on its side, not America's. Politically, Iran's anti-US and anti-Israel credentials make it politically difficult for Arab states to join a formal anti-Iran alliance lest there is progress on the peace front, and the US role in unwittingly empowering Iran has hurt its credibility. And this time, the US faces opposition by other great powers.

The silver lining for the proponents of containment is the growing perception of the regime in Tehran as an Islamic military dictatorship with narrower appeal at home and abroad. This is why the case for containment should be as much a moral as a strategic one.@Email:ehokayem@thenational.ae

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