Peter Beinart reminds us that sanctions tend to strengthen the targeted regimes domestically at the expense of their internal critics:
The academic literature is clear: Far from promoting liberal democracy, sanctions tend to make the countries subject to them more authoritarian and repressive. In 2009, University of Memphis political scientist Dursen Peksen found that, between 1981 and 2000, sanctions contributed to a significant erosion of human rights in the countries on which they were imposed. The following year, in a study co-authored with the University of Missouri’s Cooper Drury, he found that sanctioned countries grew less democratic too.
The reason is that sanctions shift the balance of power in a society in the regime’s favor. As sanctions make resources harder to find, authoritarian regimes hoard them. They make the population more dependent on their largesse, and withhold resources from those who might threaten their rule.
We have seen this happen in Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Yugoslavia, and North Korea, among other places. Imposing sanctions on countries that are under authoritarian rule typically increases scarcity and poverty, limits opportunities for economic development, further concentrates wealth and power in the hands of regime officials and their cronies, cuts off ordinary citizens from exchange with the outside world, and provokes resentment and nationalist backlash that the regime can then exploit for its own purposes. It is unsurprising that punitive measures imposed on a country harm the regime least and hurt its opponents the most. The surprising thing is that anyone pretends that the opposite could be true after decades of experience showing that it is not.
In the case of Iran, hawks have made a habit of supporting punitive measures that hurt the Iranian people while feigning concern for their well-being. These hawks claim that by increasing external pressure on the regime they are lending support to the opposition, and they say that they are trying to create conditions for the regime’s overthrow, but everything we know about the effects of these policies tells us that they are helping to the regime to shore itself up. One reason that Iran hawks misjudge the effects of sanctions is that they somehow fail to understand that other peoples respond to foreign dictates in the same way that we would.
The hawks imagine that there is an Iranian majority just waiting for U.S. “help” to get rid of their government, but in fact the vast majority of Iranians doesn’t trust the U.S. and doesn’t want any of our “help” no matter what they may think about their rulers. Iran hawks also assume that U.S. actions that they claim to be well-intentioned are perceived that way by the people suffering from their effects. The reality is that people everywhere obviously resent being made poorer and their futures less secure by the arbitrary decisions of foreign governments. Since aiding the Iranian people is little more than a talking point for Iran hawks, they are not troubled by this and keep demanding ever-tighter sanctions and more punishment treatment whose costs are borne by the population as a whole.