Sanctioning Tehran

Regardless of what happens in Iran, Obama needs to rethink his approach to the country. A joint sanctions regime with the EU would squeeze the mullahs and force them to consider reform.

The decision by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to order an inquiry into the legitimacy of the presidential elections adds yet another twist to the unfolding drama in Tehran. This is a reversal of his original view that the official results of the June 12 presidential elections were correct. But no matter what happens in the days ahead, the Obama administration must rethink its Iran policy.

The first step must be to consolidate with the European Union and prepare for next steps. This should include a continued offer to engage with the regime to resolve the nuclear issue. But it must be paralleled by a plan for invoking much tougher economic and political sanctions on the regime if it rejects the U.S.-EU offers or engages in delaying tactics while proceeding with its nuclear-enrichment program. While Russian and Chinese support for more pressure on Iran would be welcome, it should not be counted on.

If the EU were to impose the same level of sanctions on Iran that the United States has had in place since 1995, the impact on the Iranian elite would be very significant. Sanctions should also include a ban on all travel to Europe and America by family members of the regime, denying them access to educational, medical and recreational facilities. Financial sanctions, which were intensified in the last months of the Bush administration, should be rigorously enforced and expanded.

Will the EU accept such conditions? It would be a hard sell, giving the reluctance of many countries that do business with Iran, especially Germany, Italy, Greece and Spain, but this must be a test for the EU, as well as for EU-U.S. relations. The security apparatchiks that control all instruments of coercion and influence in Iran, including the lucrative economic enterprises, only understand raw power; a harsher sanctions regime will intensify the discontent in Iran among all classes of citizens, including those responsible for the development of the all-important energy sector.

If the election coup orchestrated by Ahmadinejad and his cronies is allowed to succeed, the West has no alternative but to eventually throw its support unequivocally behind the Iranians who seek to change the system peacefully and from within. But this must be done with prudence, and the initial low-keyed Western response to the elections is wise. However, there will come a time when we will have to speak up. The reality is the regime in Tehran is terrified of its own people. The events of the past few days must surely convince the hardliners that any openings to the West will eventually be to their detriment. For those who have for years hoped that a successful dialogue with the regime is both possible and desirable, the blatant fraud and strong-arm tactics associated with the election has been a wake-up call. The regime will only change its policies on the nuclear program and support for terrorism if it thinks its own survival is at stake.

There are undoubtedly risks in advocating a tougher line towards Tehran. But efforts at compromise and the hope to "just get along" with the regime runs the risk of emboldening a group of misogynists who regard the freedoms of the West as an existential threat and are fearful of everything the twenty-first century stands for. These men must eventually be confronted by their own citizens, together with external economic sanctions and political isolation. 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Iranian leaders should be constantly reminded of the dramatic events of that year to show how vulnerable their regime is to the wishes of its own people.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.