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The Futility of Trump’s Iran Policy

The administration's policy seems sure to fail on its own terms, and it is also the wrong thing to do.

The Trump administration’s plan to throttle the Iranian economy is as poorly-conceived as it is cruel:

“For ordinary people, sanctions mean unemployment, sanctions mean becoming poor, sanctions mean the scarcity of medicine, the rising price of dollar,” said Akbar Shamsodini, an Iranian businessman in the oil and gas sector who lost his job six months ago as European companies started to pull out of Iran in fear of US sanctions.

By imposing these sanctions, they want to force Iranians to rise up in revolt against their government but in practice, they will only make them flee their country [bold mine-DL],” he said, adding that ironically it would be Europe that would have to bear the burden of such a mass migration.

“We’re being squashed here … as an Iranian youth who studied here, worked here, the only thing I’m thinking about now is how to flee my country and go to Europe.”

If a foreign power waged an economic war against your country, would you be likely to respond to that foreign coercion by effectively taking their side against your own government? Of course not. The idea that Iranians will do the work of their country’s enemies by rising up and toppling the regime has always been far-fetched, but it is particularly absurd to think that Iranians would do this after they have just seen their economy be destroyed by the actions of a foreign government. People normally do not respond to economic hardship and diminishing prospects by risking their lives by starting a rebellion against the state. As Mr. Shamsodini says above, it is much more likely that they will leave to find a way to make a living elsewhere. All that strangling Iran’s economy will manage to do is push young and ambitious Iranians to go abroad while inflicting cruel collective punishment on everyone that remains behind. Making Iranians poorer and more miserable isn’t going to encourage them to be more politically active, much less rebellious, but will instead force them to focus on getting by. That is likely to depress turnout at future elections, and that is more likely to be good news for hard-line candidates in the years to come.

Iran hawks typically don’t understand the country that they obsess over, so perhaps it is not surprising that they haven’t thought any of this through, but their most glaring failure is not taking into account the importance of nationalism. When a foreign power tries dictating terms to another nation on pain of economic punishment, this is bound to provoke resentment and resistance. Like any other self-respecting nation, Iranians aren’t going to accept being told what to do by a foreign government, and they are much more likely to band together in solidarity rather than start an uprising against their own government. The stronger the nationalist tradition there is in a country, the more likely it is that the reaction to foreign threats will be one of defiance and unity. It simply makes no sense to think that the U.S. can pressure a proud nation to capitulate like this.

The administration’s policy seems sure to fail on its own terms, and it is also the wrong thing to do. President Washington exhorted his countrymen in his Farewell Address: “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” The administration’s Iran policy represents the total rejection of that advice. If the U.S. followed Washington’s recommendations, it would not be abrogating an agreement that it had just negotiated a few years earlier, and it would not be punishing an entire country for the wrongs of a few. Instead, the U.S. would have built on the success of the earlier negotiations and would have sought to reestablish normal relations with them.



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