Are Sanctions on Iran More about Satisfying American Emotional Needs Or Designed to Really Fix the Iran Problem?


ayatollah_ali_khamenei1.jpgThe Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour is one of the best commentators explicating the Iranian Government’s behavior in the business. He recently did and interview with Middle East Progress on the state of play in Iran that I found insightful.
Sadjadpour tilts toward the direction that the Iranian regime’s legitimacy is eroding but that the US has to deal with it. He seems ambivalent about sanctions and their efficacy and pessimistic about the prospects for a breakthrough while the Supreme Leader and the hardliners he has lined up remain in place.
From my perspective, the sanctions path on trying to influence Iran’s behavior has more to do with providing a focus for American frustration and emotion than achieving a successful course correction with Iran. Neither the bill that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman has been pushing in Congress nor a more watered down sanctions effort from the United Nations Security Council will influence Iran’s calculations at this point.
What the sanctions may do, however, beyond making those angry with Iran’s behavior feel better is help give Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the external provocation to further justify their actions and themselves and permit a further consolidation of power. Sadjadpour seems to suggest that this purge of moderates and pragmatists is mostly done — but I suspect that there is still a great deal of fragility and internal mistrust among Iran’s top elites and even within the sprawling machinery of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
But what is also clear from Sadjadpour’s assessment is that Iran has a rigid, more suspicious-of-its-own-team leadership that has diminished capacity to solve problems and has diminished aura across the broad Middle East.
I will share a clip below of some of Karim Sadjadpour’s views from the Middle Eeast Progress interview, but recommend reading the entire thing.
I think it’s also clear that the US government and allies should be working over time in finding ways to work with Iran’s allies and proxies, who in this time of Iran’s weakness, may be more interested in diversifying their portfolio of relationships. In my view, that means expediting a peace process with Syria — and also in my book would be trying to find a way that ends the isolation of Hamas and Hezbollah.
It’s not possible for the US to be the interlocutors with these two organizations on a lot of political levels — but it may be time to remove the US veto on say, the French — Jean-David Levitte would be my choice — to begin seeing if there is a track that leads to more responsible and potentially internationally acceptable behavior for these two groups.
It’s important not to think that simply talking to these groups changes their DNA or core views — but the process could lead to a distancing at some level between them and Iran.
Sadjadpour’s thoughts follow:

Middle East Progress: The Iranian government has yet to agree to the IAEA proposal for enrichment of Iran’s low enriched uranium in a third country. What do you think are the aims of the government with regards to the proposal?
Karim Sadjadpour: Over the last several years–and especially since last June’s tainted presidential elections–any remaining moderates or pragmatists that were once part of the Iranian government’s decision-making structure have essentially been purged from the system. Today the country is being run by a hardline Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is surrounded by likeminded ideologues who have two overarching instincts: mistrust and defiance. They generally perceive proposals and overtures that are endorsed by the United States as poison pills. Individuals who were capable of deal-making–like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani–are now on the outside looking
MEP: But what about someone like Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, who seemed willing to make deals when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, but is now sounding more strident?
Sadjadpour: Larijani is a good litmus test. While less than a decade ago he was referred to in the Western press as an arch hard-liner, in the current context he’s thought of as a pragmatist. If the color spectrum of the Iranian regime now ranges from pitch black to dark grey, Larijani is dark grey. But given that Larijani’s rise to power has been based on his fealty to Khamenei, he’s not going to say anything out of step with the Leader.
MEP: What do you make of the recent announcement about the ten new uranium enrichment plants?
Sadjadpour: I think it’s mostly bluster. To put it into perspective: it has taken Iran over two decades to complete the enrichment facility at Natanz, and it’s still not fully operational. Creating ten Natanz-size enrichment facilities, at a time when they’re facing more international scrutiny than ever, would take decades, and is certainly not an imminent threat. To the credit of the Obama administration they’ve projected the poise of a superpower and have largely chosen to ignore Iran’s bombast.
MEP: If the IAEA proposal doesn’t lead anywhere, what are the options for next steps for the United States and the international community?
Sadjadpour: I think the door of dialogue and engagement will remain open, but the Obama administration will be forced into policies–sanctions and other punitive measures–they would have liked to avoid.
In contrast to the Bush administration, I think the Europeans, and even the Russians and Chinese, recognize that since Obama’s inauguration last June the United States has made numerous overtures to Iran, made a good-faith diplomatic effort to change the tone and context of the U.S.-Iran relationship, but Tehran was either unable or unwilling to reciprocate. For this reason the Obama administration is in a much better position to attain a robust international sanctions regime than the Bush administration was.
MEP: You spoke a little bit about Russia and China. What is your sense of how far they are willing to go in terms of putting pressure on Iran?
Sadjadpour: Both countries are instinctively opposed to sanctions, but Iranian intransigence has put them in a bind. In the last few years, Russia’s modus operandi has been to endorse sanctions against Iran that they themselves have watered down. This way they can claim to the U.S. and EU that they’re supportive of their position, while privately also reassuring the Iranians that they’re sympathetic to Tehran’s position. U.S. officials feel more confident than ever that Russian patience with Iran is waning, but it remains to be seen what that means in concrete terms.
One of the reasons why Russian support is so important to the U.S. is because China has tended to follow Moscow’s lead on Iran policy. The China-Iran relationship is a more straightforward commercial relationship–China needs Iran’s energy–and I don’t think anyone believes that China will completely sever its economic ties with Iran. That said, though China has signed a lot of seemingly lucrative memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Tehran, few deals have actually been executed, and because of the headaches of dealing with Iran the Chinese have increasingly sought out energy relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In essence, China will not be willing or able to singlehandedly fill the enormous vacuum left behind by Western companies in Iran.

— Steve Clemons


10 comments on “Are Sanctions on Iran More about Satisfying American Emotional Needs Or Designed to Really Fix the Iran Problem?

  1. Pahalavan says:

    I was hoping you would enlighten us on Karim’s expertise and competency which scholars within his own subculture find questionable in this overnight expert. Arguing on whether people get shot by law enforcement here in the US or in Iran, or whether people get raped inside prisons here in the US or in Iran, or whether Bush or Ahmadinejad were legitimately elected or not is a different argument all together.
    Your frustration is a politically engineered byproduct of a fundamentally flawed PR campaign toward a political approach that’s anchored and damaged America only for the financial benefit of a ruling minority.
    Citizens in Iran and some here in the US are pretty aware that America’s new engagement approach is tied to whether its economy fishtails or not. So the new peace rehtoric is nothing but delicious hay for certain masses here in the west who will prepare to give their lives to protect freedom.


  2. Mr.Murder says:

    Engagement is the new model, isolation on ‘flat earth’ isn’t going to have the same impact.
    Accelerate progressive engagement, isolating Iran with wars on either border isn’t going to serve the long term interests of anybody. Every side would stand to lose strategic position resulting from another failed state in South Central Asia.


  3. nadine says:

    Pahlavan, if the Iranian don’t mean all the trash they’ve been talking to Israel, they should really tone it down, or they will foot a bill too large for their purse. Nobody can afford a nuclear armed Iran sparking a Mideast arms race and de facto Iranian hegemony of the Gulf — and that’s if the Iranian regime turn out to be rational actors. With such a high component of religious fanaticism among the hardliners, who can afford to rule out the possibility that some fanatic will decide that starting a war will hasten the return of the hidden Imam?
    As for whether I’m correct about the current regime not valuing the lives even of Iranians, why don’t you ask the thousands of prisoners locked up, maybe beaten and raped too, for protesting the stolen July 12 election.


  4. Pahlavan says:

    Nadine, I find Karim Sadjadpour’s view on Iran to be extremely limited. Maybe you can indulge the followers of this thread on what makes it so compelling for you to endorse his input as matter of fact. But please don’t give the effort for me as I’ve had more than enough exposure to both sides to enable me to grasp what causes people on both sides to feel and behave the way they do.
    Also, I routinely follow, watch and understand the language in which Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Mussavi, Rezai, Rafsanjani, Jannati or their respective protestors alike render their speech or chanting within. I also see how grossly the translations are distorted, sensationalized and put forth for the masses to feed on, then analyzed and psychoanalyzed by so called “expert” scholars.
    I’m not here to neither protect or campaign for any one particular side as my fabric is made up of both. If Iran and US elevate their conflict, I will lose regardless of who comes ahead at the end, but I understand both sides well enough to know that everything you’ve said about Iran and its political statements is contrary to the facts, and Iran will surprise people at the end. And I feel obligated to comment now and then because I’m convinced that the unbiased intellectuals contribution to America and its cause can be much greater if they only sit for a second and think about whether their source for all this material has been hijacked to begin with.


  5. nadine says:

    Did any of you even bother to listen to Sadjapour?
    “Over the last several years–and especially since last June’s tainted presidential elections–any remaining moderates or pragmatists that were once part of the Iranian government’s decision-making structure have essentially been purged from the system. Today the country is being run by a hardline Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is surrounded by likeminded ideologues who have two overarching instincts: mistrust and defiance”
    This is a regime that cannot be “engaged with”. Obama keeps offering, and they keep flipping him the bird. Now they announced 10 new enrichment facilities? What part of F— YOU do not understand?
    So what next? Play Mr. Nice Guy, and hand the Gulf over to a nuclear-armed fanatic hardliner Iranian regime, and just hope for the best?
    Hope is not a strategy.
    Pahlavan, Israel’s concerns have a lot to do with their desire to remain alive. How many times have Iranian leaders called Israel a “cancer”, a “rotten corpse” and predicted it would “wiped off the map” of history? It was Rafsanjani, now portrayed as a moderate compared to Ahmedinejad, who mused about a “Muslim bomb” and how tiny Israel could be destroyed with one bomb while Iran could survive the aftermath of a nuclear war. This from a regime that has never valued the lives of Iranians, let alone Arabs or Jews.
    If there is one thing the Jews learned from the 20th century, it is that when somebody tells you that he intends to kill you, you should take him seriously.


  6. David says:

    The question seemed to me to answer itself.
    I do not think war with Iran is Obama’s or the US’s goal. It was Cheney’s goal, and seems still to be Likud’s. But it is just too stupid an idea for anyone besides tunnel-vision Likudniks, Bill Kristol, Dick Cheney, and like-minded people to embrace.
    We bombed and invaded Afghanistan for domestic emotional reasons, not rational foreign policy reasons. The pipeline did not require that we go to war against Afghanistan. Domestic anger and bewilderment made it seem ok to loose the dogs of war on that repeated pawn in the “great game.”


  7. samuelburke says:

    Are Sanctions on Iran More about Satisfying American Emotional Needs Or Designed to Really Fix the Iran Problem?


  8. Pahlavan says:

    hass, I couldn’t agree with you more. I would also add that Israel’s sensationalization of Iran’s nuclear program has more to do with their motiviations to remain as the sole center if influance in the region, than concerns for their safety or existence.


  9. hass says:

    I think you’re missing the point with the sanctions. The proponents of sanctions (pro-Israelis, neocons) don’t care if they’re effective or not — they see sanctions as just an incremental step towards their real, ultimate goal which is a war with Iran. As long as the US is imposing sanctions on Iran, they’re not engaging nor negotiating with Iran, and that suits these people fine. THe last thing they want is for any sort of honest, fair negotiations with Iran.
    For example, Obama’s “unclenched fist” essentially consists of a ultimaum to Iran that would require Iran to hand out its uranium, in the hope that perhaps one day it will receive reactor fuel (no guarantees). Iran would of course be a fool to accept this, so they proposed a compromise deal of a simultaneous exchange. The US however said “my way or the highway” which only makes the Iranians more suspicious especially in light of the many other nuclear contracts that were violated. Obviously, the US is not really interested in reaching a deal with Iran and the offer was a farce.


  10. non-hater says:

    “Are Sanctions on Iran More about Satisfying American Emotional Needs Or Designed to Really Fix the Iran Problem?”
    Obviously the former.


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