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The Futility and Cruelty of Sanctions

Max Fisher relays the details of a new Gallup poll of Iranian public opinion on the nuclear issue and sanctions:

But, judging from a new Gallup poll, the sanctions do not seem to be successful at two major, secondary goals: turning Iranian public opinion against the nuclear program and against national leaders for behaving in a way that has invited sanctions. Last year, The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson reported that the Obama administration sees public discontent as an intended effect of the sanctions. But an overwhelming majority of Iranians told Gallup that Iran should continue its nuclear program, even when the question was specifically phrased to remind them that economic sanctions are a direct result of that program.

It’s also debatable whether the sanctions are achieving their primary goal of changing regime behavior, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment. This latest polling result mostly confirms what sanctions critics have argued all along. Of course sanctions haven’t turned the population against their government or the nuclear program. Why would Iranians blame their own government first for sanctions imposed by foreign governments? They might dislike their government for any number of reasons, but they aren’t going to hold it responsible for the actions that other governments are taking against their country. The question to ask is why anyone in the U.S. believed that this would happen. When a policy amounts to collective punishment, is it likely that a nation suffering from the effects of that policy will become more inclined to agree with the preferences of the foreigners inflicting that punishment? If another government imposed sanctions on your country that caused it to suffer significant economic harm, would your response be to blame your national leadership or would you fault the other government? Would you favor capitulating to the demands of the foreign government, or would you rather insist on what you believe to be your country’s national rights? The vast majority in any nation would choose the latter on both questions. It’s a completely normal, common, and predictable response that our policymakers consistently fail to anticipate.

There is a remarkably widespread belief in the U.S. that coercive and harmful policies that inflict pain and suffering on foreign civilian populations undermine popular support for their regimes. It doesn’t seem to matter that this never seems to work in practice. The suffering of the population is “justified” on the grounds that it will eventually weaken the regime and/or force it to make concessions on the disputed issue, but invariably the regime isn’t weakened, it doesn’t make any major concessions, and instead finds a new source of popular support by blaming all of the country’s woes on foreign interference. In the Iranian case, sanctions exacerbate the problems created by regime’s economic mismanagement, and at the same time they deflect popular criticism about economic problems away from the regime. On top of everything else, the economic effects of sanctions strangle domestic opposition and destroy the middle class that supports it.

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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