By: Saman Golestan
We are in a sensitive time with regards to foreign policy, and in particular with our policies toward Iran. Many former diplomats and proliferation experts say that 2013 will be the “year of decision” on Iran. Reports of US war games, military exercises and preparations have been in the news the past few months. Major news agencies, like NPR, Newsweek, and the Washington Post have brought out military and intelligence experts to play out probable scenarios if the US or Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. I won’t give away the ending entirely, but the war games show an attack on the facilities and an ending in full scale conflict. US and Israeli news polls show that a majority of Americans are opposed to a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially if it increases the risk of war. These same polls show that a majority also prefer to continue using sanctions and diplomatic tools.
There was a lot of tough talk about Iran year during the election from the candidates and from many leaders in the House and Senate. The rhetoric is typical, but rarely do we hear what exactly the current sanctions are doing. So let’s try to get away from the rhetoric and see what is happening on the ground to better determine if the sanctions have been a ‘success’ or ‘failure’.
Currently, Iran is under four different sets of United Nations Sanctions. The latest round of UN sanctions was put in place in June of 2010. Resolution 1929 banned member states from transferring arms or any materials that could be used for arms production, placed a travel ban on many Iranian officials involved with the nuclear program, and recommended that member states stop and inspect Iranian vessels that are suspected of shipping materials related to any arms program. Most importantly, Resolution 1929 recommended that nations prohibit the opening of Iranian banks or international financial institutions that are suspected of having ties to Iran’s nuclear program.
Beginning in fall of 2011, the United States and its allies placed some of the broadest and harshest sanctions ever placed on Iran. US sanctions targeted Iran’s energy sector, including an embargo on Iranian oil imports by the US, EU, Japan, South Korea and other nations. The US sanctions, signed into law as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 31, 2011 by the President. The US sanctions also put restrictions on financial institutions that do business dealings with Iran’s Central Bank, forcing international banks to cut ties with Iran if they wanted to continue to do business with US banks, with limited exceptions. Since then, more sanction measures have taken effect, including removing Iran’s Central Bank from SWIFT, which is the main international monetary exchange system between nations. The EU recently imposed new sanctions on Iran’s financial sector, including reducing imports of metals and natural gas from Iran. On February 6, new sanctions on gold and precious metal trade with Iran went into effect, making international trade even more difficult, and closing one of Iran’s last viable trading options.
The sanctions are mainly on Iran’s oil exports, which is their primary source of revenue, coupled with the direct sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, have resulted in a severe economic collapse in Iran. Oil revenues are expected to be down by fifty billion dollars this year. The sanctions have caused the most strain on ordinary citizens with the price of food, medicine and other necessities skyrocketing, as the value of the Rial, the Iranian Currency, tumbles. Over the course of one week in early October 2012 the value of the Rial plunged by forty percent, and compared to the end of 2011 the currency value has fallen by eighty percent.
Ten thousand industry workers petitioned the Ministry of Labor about their worsening working conditions, increased layoffs, lack of job opportunity and continued decreases in pay; this is no small feat in a nation that has outlawed unions and regularly cracks down on any public display of criticism of government policy. The situation became so dire that the entire network of small shop owners in Tehran’s central bazaar (with thousands of shops), took to the streets to protest the economic conditions. The protest did not last longer than a day however, after government forces stormed the Bazaar and forced shop owners to stay open and arrested dozens.
The sanctions are working so well, in fact, that some diplomats believe the entire Iranian economy could collapse by the end of 2013. Last fall, news broke that the Iranian government is ready to negotiate about its nuclear program again, and this time is ready, ‘in principle[MG1] ’ to negotiate with the US directly. In February, the negotiations resumed in Kazakhstan with International Group known as P5 + 1 (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). Officials said it was constructive and positive; a follow up meeting is scheduled to meet soon in Turkey. It is clear that the sanctions are having the desired economic impact, and have pressured the regime into returning to the negotiating table.
What is not clear is if the regime will bow to the pressure of the sanctions, even as its citizens are increasingly suffering. Many question the humanity of such sanctions that create widespread economic suffering, and the evidence of that suffering is increasing by the day. The latest casualties are sick patients who can no longer purchase their life saving medication due to price hikes and shortages. There is no question that such a result is anything short of cruel. Interestingly, the sanctions laws do provide clear exceptions for humanitarian aid and medicine. The problem is that most states and institutions are unaware of the exceptions, and are too afraid to do any business with Iran for fear of violating the sanctions.
Let’s consider the other alternative that has been gaining traction: a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. A study by the University of Utah estimated the number of Iranian casualties from the nuclear fallout would be upwards of 100,000 citizens. That number does not even take into account the possibility of a broader or full-scale war.
It is imperative that we utilize these sanctions intelligently as an alternative to war, not as a stepping-stone to war. We must continue the diplomatic track to bring about a peaceful solution, because the world cannot afford the large scare war or the large-scale humanitarian crisis that would likely result from any strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. For now, we watch and hope that rational and cooler heads prevail during the latest round of talks, and that the “year of decision” on Iran turns out not to be a decision on war, but a decision on peace.