Peter Beinart makes a good case that it’s wrong to call the Iranian government totalitarian, but he gives Iran hawks too much credit in the process:
If Iran really were a totalitarian regime, it’s possible more sanctions might bring more concessions. But because it’s actually an authoritarian regime in which different factions jostle, privately and publicly, for power, more sanctions will likely have the opposite effect.
Beinart is right that the Iranian regime is authoritarian, but the argument for imposing additional sanctions wouldn’t make any more sense if it were a totalitarian government. Regardless of its composition or ideology, any regime is far more likely to respond to coercive measures with intransigence than accommodation. It is useful to explain that the Iranian regime isn’t totalitarian, if only to make clear that Iran hawks don’t understand Iran very well, but the Iran hawks would still be wrong to push for stricter sanctions even if they were right about the nature of the regime. For one thing, the genuinely totalitarian North Korean government responded just as one would expect when the U.S. imposed additional sanctions in the misguided belief that more pressure would ensure compliance. Zachary Keck explained this two years ago:
So what policies brought the crisis from the historic agreement in September 2005 to the nuclear test a year later? The U.S. imposed new sanctions against North Korea, believing that upping the pressure would force it to honor the agreement it had already signed.
There are two major flaws in the argument for additional sanctions. One is the mistaken assumption that a regime can continue to be forced to make concessions through ever-increasing pressure until it gives up everything. We know that this is not how governments react to external pressure. An authoritarian regime may be willing to reach a compromise on a disputed issue, but like any other government there are limits to what it will and can accept. The other flaw is the unrealistic, maximalist goal that they these sanctions are supposed to achieve. Cotton often talks about wanting Iran to dismantle its entire nuclear program. That’s an absurd demand, and there was never any chance that Iran would agree to this. Iran hawks want to use an ineffective tactic to pursue an impossible goal. They are also wrong about the nature of Iran’s regime, but their preferred course of action would still be foolish in any case.