Paul Pillar

Sanctions That Are Designed to Fail

Beware of hawks in sheep's clothing—or maybe it's dove's plumage. That's one thought that comes to mind in seeing an op-ed over the weekend about Iran titled “Don't Give Up on Sanctions” by Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz, even though these two authors are not ones to hide their hard-line hawkishness on Iran. Doesn't it sound reasonable and moderate that we should give less violent means a chance rather than jumping right into a war with Iran? Don't be fooled; Gerecht and Dubowitz are not proposing an alternative to war but instead preparing more of the battlefield for a later push for war.

The supposed sanctions they are supposedly recommending would involve pressuring European and most European energy companies not to buy Iranian oil (the pressure to come from the threat of not being able to do business in the United States). The idea is that other (mostly Chinese) companies “would have significant negotiating leverage with which to extract discounts from Tehran,” and the Iranian government would lose tens of billions of dollars in revenue. The idea is invalid. As Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution explained at a Congressional hearing at which Dubowitz pitched the scheme, “This sort of idea that somehow the Iranians can become a sort of niche market for only bad companies and bad countries to purchase crude oil from simply doesn’t reflect the realities of the international marketplace.” It is doubtful Gerecht and Dubowitz expect any such scheme ever to be implemented, especially given that policy makers and economists in the United States and other Western nations would realize its invalidity. So the proposal will never be put to the test. The two hawks can claim that it would have worked and that the failure to try it is one more instance of the pusillanimity of, as they refer elsewhere in their piece, “Western politicians who are fearful of higher oil costs and of being seen as too harsh on the Iranian people.”

Gerecht and Dubowitz do not clarify which of the possible objectives of sanctions their scheme supposedly would be pursuing. They do speak of “loosening” the Iranian regime's “hold on power.” But when they say elsewhere that “the objective of sanctions is to cause real economic pain in Tehran,” they say nothing about how that translates into loosening the regime's hold on power. If they instead are looking to change the regime's policies—about its nuclear program or anything else—they make no mention of the component that is essential for any sanctions regime to have a chance to work: diplomacy that points to an alternative route involving a change in policy and a lifting of sanctions. Instead, they rely on the repeated falsehood—which Dubowitz has asserted more explicitly and strongly elsewhere—that diplomatic means have been tried, exhausted and failed.

The most sincere sentence in the piece comes in the final paragraph: “Like President Obama's failed attempt [sic] at diplomatic engagement, sanctions are an unavoidable and necessary prelude to any more forceful action to stop Ayatollah Khamenei's nuclear ambitions.” Gerecht and Dubowitz are not pushing for launching a war against Iran now because they know Barack Obama does not favor one. Their task for now is to prepare the propagandistic groundwork for a big push for a war after, they hope, a different president enters office in 2013. Repeating the canard that diplomatic alternatives have been exhausted is part of that preparation. Another part is making the case the sanctions are not sufficient—supplementing the case as necessary with proposals for sanctions that would have no chance for working even if they were adopted. And each phase of the preparation, based on the unproven assumption that the advent of an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a terrible development, further fosters the impression that—as will be argued vociferously when the time for a big push for war comes—such a development really would indeed be terrible and must be prevented at all costs, even if “all costs” means a disastrous war. As usual with similarly minded Iran hawks, Gerecht and Dubowitz make no attempt to prove the assumption, relying instead on sheer repetition of it to inculcate the notion that it is true.

One has to wonder why anyone who has U.S. interests at heart would campaign for a war that would severely damage those interests. One also has to wonder why anyone still listens to the campaigners, given how much most of the same people discredited themselves by campaigning for an earlier blunder of a war in Iraq. But no wondering is necessary to see their current strategy, which is all too clear.