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End the Economic War on Iran

The economic war on Iran is one of the main reasons why there won’t be any negotiations between the U.S. and Iran under the current administration:

Iran’s in no mood to back down. In Moscow on Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Sajjadpour told reporters there can’t be dialog with the U.S. while “unjust” sanctions remain.

“As we say in Persian, it was not my aunt who withdrew from JCPOA, it was the United States that withdrew,” he said. “It is you who should change your behavior, your mentality and your approach, to see a different context,” Sajjadpour said of the U.S.

It is hard to see how the U.S. and Iran can bridge the gap between them until our government acknowledges that it was the current administration that wronged Iran and then seeks to make amends for the injustice committed against them. There was no good reason for the U.S. to renege on the agreement, and there was no justification for reimposing sanctions. Even if the Iranian government were able to believe that the administration wouldn’t betray them a second time, they are not going to want to reward the initial betrayal by offering more concessions. It is not lost on them that their government made significant concessions while the U.S. had to do nothing except stop sanctioning Iran over the nuclear issue, and then the U.S. turned around and demanded vastly more on pain of the same sanctions and more besides. There is nothing to stop the U.S. from doing the same thing to them again, and so they have chosen to hold out until they have more reasonable interlocutors. When some of the Democratic presidential candidates are echoing hawkish talking points on this issue, that does not help matters. There is a grim irony that hard-liners here in the U.S. are constantly moaning about “appeasement” when they are the ones playing the role of the aggressors that Iran is expected to appease.

If the economic war doesn’t end and the JCPOA falls apart (as the Trump administration wants), Iran is threatening to scrap not just the nuclear deal but their participation in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well:

Iran raised the stakes in its standoff with the U.S. and Europe on Thursday, warning that if the 2015 nuclear agreement unravels, it would follow the path of North Korea and quit a treaty aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

The threat, voiced by an Iranian official to reporters, marked the first time Tehran has explicitly used its participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, as leverage in its talks with European officials over keeping its commitments in the separate 2015 deal.

Driving Iran out of the NPT would be proof of the complete failure of Trump’s policy, but it would also set up an extremely dangerous situation that hard-liners in Washington would be eager to exploit. Iran has thus far honored its commitments and stayed within the limits of both the nuclear deal and the NPT, but if they are going to be punished no matter what they do they have fewer incentives to continue their compliance. Abandoning the NPT is a worst-case scenario, and we have to hope that it doesn’t come to that, but everything the Trump administration has done over the last year has made that outcome much more likely.

The Iranian government shouldn’t take this extreme measure of quitting the NPT, but if the U.S. further undermines the nuclear deal they may feel compelled to do so. Tehran made a political decision to renounce the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that decision should be encouraged and reinforced. Everything that the U.S. is doing right now is pushing Iran in the wrong direction. Critics of Trump’s policy, including me, have been warning for a while that the administration is in danger of repeating the Bush administration’s North Korean errors with Iran, so Washington should take this warning very seriously.

As we watch the administration’s destructive policy unfold, it is worth remembering that none of this had to happen. Paul Pillar imagines what the situation would have been like if the U.S. had not reneged on the nuclear deal, but had followed through on its commitments instead:

If Trump had never embarked on his current course and instead had lived up to U.S. obligations under the JCPOA, then Iran also would continue to observe its own obligations under the agreement. There would be no talk about exceeding limits on enriched uranium. Iran would have no reason to seek military confrontation with a vastly superior military power. And if allowed to export oil as promised under the agreement, Iran would have no reason to risk disrupting the oil trade, such as by sabotaging tankers. Iran’s role in the current standoff is entirely a reaction to what the Trump administration is doing to Iran.

The Trump administration has gambled that strangling Iran economically is worth the risk of encouraging nuclear proliferation, and the result has been to erode one of the biggest nonproliferation successes and to inflict enormous hardship on more than 80 million Iranians with nothing else to show for their efforts. Trump’s policy is making both war and proliferation more likely, and none of this serves U.S. interests in the least. The U.S. and Iran would still have had many significant disagreements if Trump had respected the deal, but continued U.S. participation in the JCPOA could have allowed for a more stable relationship and potentially one less defined by mutual antagonism and distrust. Trump threw all that away, and his successor will have to do a lot of work to reverse the damage that has been done in the meantime.

Repairing the damage will not be easy for the next president, who will have to deal with the fallout from the many gratuitous insults that the Trump administration has sent to Iran’s leaders. Jarrett Blanc comments on the stupidity of the “symbolic” sanctions on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

The problem with these new sanctions is not that they are symbolic, but that the messages they convey to Iran and the rest of the world are foolish and dangerous, and will fail to advance U.S. interests.

As Blanc notes, sanctioning the top leadership of a regime is usually only done when they have been targeted for regime change. Sanctioning Khamenei doesn’t just confirm that Trump has no interest in negotiating, but it is practically announcing that the administration’s goal is the overthrow of the current government. The administration’s policy has been regime change in all but name for more than a year, but now there is really no denying it. The next president will have a very tough time reassuring the Iranian government that his or her rejection of regime change is genuine after four years of Trump.

Meanwhile, the economic war and threats of escalation are having a deleterious effect on political activists inside Iran. A letter signed by 116 Iranian human rights activists warns against the terrible effects that war would have on the country and the damage that the sanctions have already been doing:

Many Iran-based human rights defenders have expressed dismay that broad economic sanctions imposed by the US and the specter of war have already made their work more difficult. Many of them are struggling to make ends meet in a depressed economy, while their activities have become increasingly risky in a heightened security environment. The threat of war has strengthened support for the Iranian state’s security approaches and has been used as a pretext to crack down on activists [bold mine-DL]. Minority communities, who have little space for civic activism, suffer the brunt of crackdowns at such times. Many Iranian human rights defenders fear that an actual military conflict would give the Iranian security forces an opportunity to finally put a complete stop to their advocacy efforts.

Putting a country under siege and threatening it with attack are guaranteed ways to tighten the regime’s grip at home. U.S. policy is simultaneously robbing ordinary Iranians of the means to live and work while strengthening the regime and undermining its internal critics. The best thing for these activists and for all Iranians is to end the economic war, stop the threats of military action, and take away the external threat that the regime uses to suppress the opposition.

Neil Bhatiya compares the “maximum pressure” campaigns against Venezuela and Iran, and notes that the failure of the Venezuela campaign doesn’t bode well for the same policy in Iran:

Of course, Venezuela and Iran are different countries and cultures operating in different regional security environments. But the extent to which the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy seems stuck six months after what had first appeared to be an inflection point should be instructive. Even a maximum pressure campaign that is successful by almost every economic indicator, in terms of inflicting its intended economic pain, is not translating into the kind of political change that is likely to satisfy Trump’s apparent foreign policy goals. Iran presents even more challenges. Only the United States is dedicated to implementing the pressure campaign against it; the economic damage to Iran so far is significant, but not nearly as stark as with Venezuela; and the Iranian domestic landscape, while varied, does not appear to be anywhere near as divided as in Venezuela.

“Maximum pressure” is effective at causing pain and impoverishing people, but it does not weaken the regimes it targets. On the contrary, it starves the people and saps the time, energy, and resources that the opposition needs. If you want to encourage internal political changes in a country, you do not strangle, suffocate, and steal from the population with sanctions. Misery and hardship do not produce a change for the better, but cause people to sink into desperation and resentment. If we want to see the Iranian people flourish and gradually make their government as they want it to be, our government must stop waging economic war against them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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