Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
Between 1990 and 2003, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein confronted the twentieth century’s most devastating economic sanctions. In theory, he could have won relief by fully cooperating with United Nations weapons inspectors on his country’s WMD program, yet he refused to do so until the bitter end. In reality, he had no reason to give in; he believed that the United States would block the lifting of sanctions as long as he remained in power. And, despite those crippling sanctions, he hung on to power until deposed in 2003 by U.S. military forces.
Opponents of the recent interim nuclear agreement with Iran seem to think that, somehow, this time would be different. They argue that the sanctions are working and that further tightening the squeeze would force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, perhaps by fomenting regime change. But there is no evidence in the past 100 years of sanctions history to support that premise. In 204 episodes that colleagues at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and I studied, only three were deemed fully successful when the issues at stake involved core national interests on both sides -- for instance, preventing Taiwan and Korea from developing nuclear weapon capabilities, which the United States accomplished by threatening sanctions in the 1970s. And, as I recently wrote, in all three of those cases, the target of the sanctions was heavily dependent, both economically and for security guarantees, on the sanctioning country.
Saddling Iran with additional sanctions is unlikely to produce the results that the hawks want. In fact, it could do the opposite; while the United States waits for the sanctions’ economic and political payoff, Iran would most likely continue its nuclear program unfettered. Remember that the Obama administration opted for coercion over negotiation with Iran once before, and it did not get what it wanted. After the United States and its allies opted to tighten sanctions rather than negotiate with Iran in 2010, the number of first-generation centrifuges producing low-enriched uranium in Iran more than doubled. Moreover, in 2013, the country installed 1,000 second-generation centrifuges that could produce low-enriched uranium even faster. Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent (and in a form that could be more easily enriched to weapons-grade) increased 10-fold over that period.
The 2010 sanctions eventually “worked,” in that they weakened the Iranian economy, but they also inflicted increasing pain on ordinary Iranians and they did not force Iran to switch off its nuclear program. The need for sanctions relief to boost his domestic support brought Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the negotiating table. But Rouhani also has to deal with his own hawks, who oppose any compromise on the nuclear program and whose mistrust of the United States would be vindicated if talks end with more sanctions.
In reality, the promise to lift sanctions in a carefully calibrated exchange for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program gives the United States more leverage than would ratcheting up sanctions. The interim agreement reached in Geneva is only the first step on a long and difficult road to a final accord. The economic pain of sanctions convinced Iran’s leaders to begin the journey, but it is the promise of relief that will keep them moving in the right direction.
The Limits of Containment