Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Boundless Bad Faith of Iran Hawks

Holding specific officials accountable for their role in an outrageous crime is very different from strangling a country's entire economy and choking off its access to humanitarian goods.

Jonathan Schanzer wins this year’s contest for concern trolling:

There is a rare and growing bipartisan consensus in Congress about the need to smack Saudi Arabia with human-rights sanctions, or perhaps even tougher penalties, for its role in the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month but never walked out. Sanctions seem inevitable.

The only problem is that many of the same experts pushing for sanctions against Saudi Arabia have previously argued, in other contexts, that sanctions don’t work. That was the near-unanimous conclusion of top policy experts who supported the Obama administration’s decision to roll back sanctions on Iran, which had brought its economy to the brink of collapse, in exchange for a nuclear deal. It’s just one example of a broader trend: analysts suddenly discovering that the Middle East is more complex than they’d previously admitted.

It is telling that the only person that Schanzer cites as being in favor of sanctions on Saudi Arabia is Lindsey Graham, who is almost always in favor of imposing sanctions on other governments. Graham likes to “sanction the hell” out of lots of governments, so it doesn’t tell us very much that this is his first instinct now. The “same experts pushing for sanctions against Saudi Arabia” remain strangely anonymous, perhaps because there aren’t very many who are actually calling for these measures now. The far more common response to the Khashoggi murder has been to call for halting arms sales and cutting off military assistance to the Saudi coalition war on Yemen. Most of the people calling for this were already in favor of doing these things, and now they are being joined by others that want to make Saudi Arabia pay a price for what the crown prince has done.

Schanzer must think he is making devastating observations when he writes this:

The Washington Post, which now wants Saudi Arabia to pay a price for Khashoggi’s death, ran a piece just last year by Adam Taylor titled “Do Sanctions Work? The Evidence Isn’t Compelling.” Even the Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was held hostage by the Iranians and is now safely back in the United States, opposed more sanctions on Iran in a recent piece, arguing that they would only inflict more suffering on its population.

If this is the best evidence he has of some sort of hypocrisy or contradiction on the part of opponents of Iran sanctions, he may as well give up. Has Rezaian argued for imposing similarly stringent sanctions on Saudi Arabia? I don’t think so. Did Taylor suddenly change his tune and insist that sanctioning Saudi Arabia would force Riyadh to alter its behavior? No. So what point does Schanzer think he’s making? That a newspaper that wants justice for a murdered colleague shouldn’t have run these pieces in the past? That the authors of those pieces have been proven wrong by subsequent events? They haven’t been. It’s a ridiculous line of argument.

Sanctions typically don’t change regime behavior, but then this has never bothered Iran hawks, who are interested in sanctioning Iran for the purpose of isolating and hurting the country. There is also a crucial difference between targeted sanctions that are applied to individual officials within a regime and broad economic and financial sanctions that harm an entire country and its population. One can rightly reject reimposing illegitimate sanctions on Iran because of the harm it would do to the people while supporting targeted sanctions on leading members of another government. As far as I know, no one that opposes Iran sanctions is suggesting that the U.S. copy the collective punishment it is inflicting on Iran in order to punish Saudi Arabia. That would be foolish and wrong for the same reason that it is foolish and wrong when we do it to Iran: it punishes innocent people for things they aren’t responsible for and cannot control. Holding specific officials accountable for their role in an outrageous crime is very different from strangling a country’s entire economy and choking off its access to humanitarian goods. Schanzer and his organization are enthusiastically in favor of doing the latter, so it is remarkable that he thinks he is in any position to lecture anyone on this issue.



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