Talk Is Cheap

Sanctions Might Have Brought Rouhani to The Table, But They Won't Keep Him There

An Iranian Zelzal missile is launched during a test at an unknown location in central Iran, September 27, 2009.
An Iranian Zelzal missile is launched during a test at an unknown location in central Iran, September 27, 2009. (Ali Shayegan / Courtesy Reuters)

In 2012, I argued that sanctions against Iran could succeed at bringing Tehran back to the negotiating table but that they were not a strategy in and of themselves. Occasional (and usually fruitless) talks, after all, would be no substitute for overall stability and political normalization. A more successful long-term U.S. policy, I wrote, should be geared toward building a more democratic Iran. That remains true today. As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani mounts his charm offensive at the UN General Assembly, it is worth remembering that sanctions alone did not bring about the new Iranian attitude. Nor will they be enough to guarantee Iran’s cooperation in the future.

Over the last two years, the U.S. and EU sanctions regimes have scored impressive results, mostly thanks to broad international support for, and compliance with, them. Some countries, such as Canada, signed on to tight trade restrictions. Others, such as India, significantly curtailed their purchases of Iranian oil and restricted what Iran could do with the payments for that oil. All told, Iran’s useable oil export revenue was around two-thirds less than it would otherwise have been this year. At about $30–$35 billion a year, Iran’s useable oil revenue now stands at a level last seen a decade ago. That has compelled the government to dip into reserves and scale back populist initiatives, such as the payments Iranians get each month to compensate for some phased-out subsidies for energy and other goods. That the country now appears ready to bargain reinforces the old Iranian adage that the Islamic Republic never gives into pressure -- it only gives in to great pressure.

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