Rejecting sanctions doesn’t make Iran go away, it simply limits the viable options for dealing with the recalcitrant regime. Instead of a policy shaded in grays you get the more hawkish option of black and white—attack or do nothing. This dichotomy incidentally suits the hawkish community just fine.
Of course, refraining from imposing punitive measures on a state with which we have no necessary conflict of interest is not “doing nothing.” It could be the prelude to rapprochement and the normalization of relations, the opening of economic and diplomatic ties, and the de-escalation of tensions through the region. That is not really “doing nothing.” It only counts as inaction for those who have been conditioned by the nature of foreign policy debate in this country to equate coercion with “doing something.” One of the reasons why we routinely define “doing something” in terms of coercion is that our foreign policy is not tied to concrete interests of the American people, but has instead become a hegemonic project with a life and vested interests of its own.
One of the reasons why I take such an absolutist position against sanctions is that I object to a policy debate in which the main points of contention concern the means to be used to pursue a fruitless and futile goal. We have seen all of this before with our policies towards Iraq since 1991. Sanctions did not “work” to topple Hussein’s government, and they imposed a terrible cost on Iraqis in the process. Perversely, it was pro-war figures who exploited the inhumane nature of the sanctions regime to justify invasion. After all, they said, you don’t want these terrible sanctions to continue indefinitely. This was one of the bogus “humanitarian” rationales for attacking Iraq. If we continue down the path towards more severe sanctions, thereby conceding that the Iranian government is doing something unacceptable for which they must be punished, we will be hearing the call for military intervention a few years later, and no doubt hawks will claim that they are supporting such action for the sake of the Iranian people whom they will have been happily impoverishing for years.
Sanctions will not “work” to compel Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, but the more important point that I was trying to make in the earlier post is that our Iran policy ought not be concerned with Iran’s nuclear ambitions at all. Cutting off gasoline imports won’t be “successful,” just as a number of other possible sanctions will never gain enough international support to be economically punishing on the regime, but we shouldn’t be trying to find mechanisms with which to coerce Iran into abandoning a nuclear program that two of its close neighbors and several other major powers already have. While it is important to stress that neither sanctions nor military action will change Tehran’s behavior, those are merely pragmatic arguments. They are valid and useful as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. The crucial point that cannot be emphasized too much is that we should not be trying to change Tehran’s behavior, or at least we should be thinking far more creatively about how to relate to Tehran without falling back on using different kinds of coercion.
Scoblete Sullivan mentions “shades of gray,” but that suggests a wide range of possibilities and a variety of ways to approach Iran. These do not exist at present. The debate over sanctions is mostly a debate over the degree of hostility Washington should direct at the Iranian government. My view is that absolute opposition to sanctions is the only credible way to reject an Iran policy defined by this hostility. Once you buy into the idea that Iran’s nuclear program is “unacceptable” and must be stopped for the good of all, you have already given the hawks everything they need to keep ratcheting up the pressure until the “inevitability” of war has become the consensus view. Why not start instead from the assumption that war with Iran is the unacceptable outcome and change our behavior towards Iran accordingly?
The essential flaw in our Iran policy is that it defines as “unacceptable” something that we cannot prevent by any means available to us. Having set an impossible goal (short of a major land war involving hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Americans), the debate over the efficacy of different forms of coercion is practically useless. It is true that I am not offering a “viable option” for coercing Iran into changing its behavior, but I don’t accept that our debate should be so constricted and narrow that our only “viable” policy options are the ones that hawks find acceptable.