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Sanctions counterproductive

by Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi

From a paper by Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi titled Adopt a Longer-Term Perspective on Iran delivered May 1, 1996, at the Iran in Transition conference organized by the Petro-Hunt Corporation in Dallas.

Author's photo On September 1st, 1993, over seven months into President Clinton's tenure, and less than two weeks before the historic Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn, [National Security Advisor] Anthony Lake wrote me a two-page letter describing the Administration's position on Iran.

He did express grave concern over Iran's aggressive domestic and foreign behavior. But he also understood Iran's importance and wrote, "We are ready for a dialogue with the Iranian government. We remain prepared to meet face-to-face with authoritative representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran wherever and whenever they choose."

Things have deteriorated noticeably since then. The U.S., it seems, is no longer interested in dialogue, only in unrelenting pressure. In fact, the last 12 months mark an unprecedented low in U.S.-Iran relations. Legitimate concern over Iran's actions and intentions coupled with Washington's own electoral dynamics have taken the atmosphere of name-calling to new heights.

Today, United States' Iran policy has been demoted to an emotionally charged debate on how to best demonize Iran, and how to best weaken and isolate it. The mainstream media's often sensationalizing agendas has only made the situation worse. All this is in spite of the fact that Iran's domestic and foreign behavior has become more moderate over the past years.

Policy architects in Washington have to realize that Iran and the U.S. will have to deal with one another long after sanctions have come and gone. Unfortunately, such a realization and the need for adopting a longer-term perspective on Iran seems to elude them.

Instead of developing a vision of the kind of Iran they want to see emerge, say in the next decade, and design a policy to realize that vision, U.S. policy makers have been merely reacting to the Islamic Republic's reactive policy; a chain of reaction that disallows constructive action.

The U.S. sanctions policy is based on false assumptions about Iran. In particular, the policy downgrades Iran's strategic significance and economic potential, views the regime as a static monolith, ignores the dynamics of the domestic non-state sector, and underestimates Iran's stamina.

Besides, by one-sidedly focusing on Tehran's behavior, the sanctions policy fails to develop conditions for the emergence of a more reliable Iran. A well-behaved Iran that strategically allies itself with Russia, China, or other U.S. competitors, can hardly be beneficial to U.S. strategic or economic interests in a vitally important region of the world.

Look ahead a decade to the year 2006. What kind of Iran do we want to see evolve? I trust we would all be better off to see a reliable, stable, democratic Iran, an ally of the United States. For those of us who regularly visit Iran and closely follow developments there, this is indeed a possibility.

If such an Iran emerges, the two countries will enjoy the mutual respect of normal diplomacy and the mutual gain of large-scale trade with trillions of dollars at stake. If that is indeed what the United States wants in the medium- and long-term, the key question becomes, how can it facilitate developments in that direction?

Clearly the first step is to better understand the new realities of today's Iran. The United States foreign policy establishment would be unwise to reduce Iran, a nation of 65 million people with over 500 years of modern statehood, to the regime of the Islamic Republic. The former is lasting, the latter transient. Ultimately the real power in Iran is in the hands of the Iranian people.

Because of its long experience with statehood, Iran is fundamentally more stable and internally cohesive than all of its neighbors. Those who are hoping for a repeat of the CIA-backed coup -- that 43 years ago deposed the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq -- to restore the Shah's rule are living a pipe dream.

The proposed $20 million to the CIA to agitate the scene in Iran -- what Speaker Newt Gingrich has prescribed -- bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary Iranian politics. Tired as they are of the excesses of clerical rule, Iranians will not allow their independence, what they have fought tooth-and-nail for, to be stepped on. What the Iranian people will support is the democratic construction of a secular and modern state that can in fact be a friend of the United States.

I have stated in my recent writings, published in the United States and Iran, that the most important trend in today's Iran is a shift away from Islamism and toward secular nationalism. Pan-Islamic ideology is an aberration in Iranian history. Iranian nationalism, on the contrary, is the historical norm.

The voice of pro-modern nationalism is getting louder in the media, universities, and even in the Iranian parliament, the Majlis. The current demand to de-couple Islam and the Islamic Republic originates from secular and religious forces alike.

The irony here is that even even as some of the traditionally pan-Islamic clergy increasingly concede that Iran is more Persian than Islamic, Washington ignores the forces of secular nationalism simmering vigorously in Iran, both in and outside the state apparatus.

I cannot stress this enough: If the United States pushes Iran into
a corner, it may cause an ultra-nationalist state to assume power in Tehran, driven by fascistic ideals. If conditions get bad, driven by Shi'ite culture's affinity to charismatic leadership, young Iranians will increasing yearn for their knight-in-shinning-armor.

And if such a leader is more adept at diplomacy than the clergy, and if he succeeds in developing strategic alliances with China, Russia and India, the U.S. may find its interests seriously challenged in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian regions. Unfortunately, Senator D'Amato and representative Gilman are too mired in the demands of political expediency to understand the magnitude of this possible development.


Sanctions are unpopular among the vast majority of experts in this country and Europe, who believe that a policy of constructive engagement is the most plausible course for changing Iran's disruptive behavior. With the exception of Israel, the "stick and no carrot" policy has no support among U.S. allies.

Sanctions are also counterproductive. They do three things. First, they allow the most anti-American of the elite to blame the U.S. as the sole cause of Iran's troubles, in effect hiding their own failures. Second, sanctions discredit all voices within the Iranian hierarchy who are in favor of improved relations with the United States. Third, and most important, by making the Iranian economy more unstable and less productive, sanctions help the most parasitic, unproductive and anti-American elements in Iran to get richer and more powerful.

In March, [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Dick Cheney called sanctions counterproductive as well. He was not speaking solely as an interested businessman, but also as a citizen concerned about U.S. strategic interests.

Cheney's remark is symptomatic of a growing realization in the corporate community and among policy experts that writing the Iran sanctions into law will harm the United Stated tremendously. The European Union and Asia's economic giants have already expressed alarm over the extra-territorial reach of the proposed legislation.

I have sat and listened to tens of top Iranian officials complain that their overtures of dialogue with the United States have been rebuffed by Washington. The Iranian foreign and petroleum ministers tell me that Iran's offer to Conoco and its attempt at joining the [international oil] consortium in Azerbaijan were chiefly designed to provide Iran with a forum of mutual interest with the United States, upon which further reconciliation could have been built.

President Rafsanjani's interviews with ABC and CNN have underscored Iran's readiness for dialogue. This would have been unimaginable a few years ago. On March 11, in an international news conference in Tehran, a [U.S.] National Public Radio reporter asked Rafsanjani whether he sought American trade and investment? The president's response was a categorical "Yes."

But Rafsanjani faces an uphill battle with his conservative opponents. if he and his technocratic, Western-educated deputies had succeeded in improving the condition of the Iranian economy, they would have been emboldened to more actively advocate improved ties with the United States. thus, Iran's economic doldrums are the most central cause of U.S.-Iranian animosity.

In the recent elections for the 270-seat Majlis, Rafsanjani's reformist supporters won 80 seats, while their conservative rivals captured 90 seats. One hundred seats belong to delegates with divided loyalties. This is an unprecedented opening.

Much still rides on Iran's 1997 presidential election. The United States should back all efforts to swing the Majlis toward the reformist faction. Sanctions will do the exact opposite. The way to dislodge the conservatives' stranglehold is precisely to give the Iranian economy a boost.

Sanctions are counterproductive, and the tighter the sanctions get, the more counterproductive they will be. Diplomacy informed by vision in Washington and Tehran will ensure brighter prospects for both countries. Iran's incorporation into the region and international capital markets makes business and strategic sense.

Iran's isolation on the other hand, will result in exorbitant political and economic transaction costs which will harm all parties concerned. Most important, if Iran is engaged, its transition toward a reliable, stable and democratic state will gain further momentum.

The author is professor of planning and public policy and director of Middle East studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is also chairman of U.S.-Iran Conference, Inc. He has written or edited seven books and Iran and published more than 100 articles in the U.S. and Iran.

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