War by Other Means? Iran under Sanctions

On March 12, 2013, CIRS organized a panel discussion on the topic of “War by Other Means?
Iran under Sanctions,” featuring Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS; Mansoor Moaddel, CIRS ‎Visiting Scholar; and Manata Hashemi, CIRS Post-Doctoral Fellow. The objective of the panel ‎was to have a discussion on the nature of the sanctions and their consequences for both the ‎Iranian individual and the state. ‎

Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS, began the panel discussion with a summary of the history of ‎the sanctions imposed on Iran, as well as their effects on the lives of ordinary Iranians. He ‎recounted that the sanctions were imposed on Iran by the United States and other Western ‎governments in reaction to the US embassy hostage incident in 1979, and as a means of isolating ‎the Islamic Republic in the subsequent years. It was only twenty years later, however, that the ‎Clinton Administration passed the “Iran Sanctions Act,” which made the sanctions regime an ‎integral part of US foreign policy. The sanctions “were not really codified until the 1990s when ‎the United States became far more concerned about Iran’s nuclear program,” Kamrava explained. ‎Thus, the strict sanctions were used as a means to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program did not ‎progress due to import and export embargoes. “The assumption was that once Iran stops ‎enriching its nuclear capabilities, then the sanctions would be lifted,” he maintained. ‎

In later years, while the Bush Administration threatened Iran with the possibility of war, the ‎Obama Administration reacted to the Islamic Republic by increasing sanctions that constricted ‎Iran even further. “It is the Obama Administration that has been far more aggressive in terms of ‎the sanctions regime,” Kamrava argued, because President Obama has been trying to keep the ‎Republicans at bay by adhering to institutional and congressional means of engagement instead ‎of attacking or invading Iran.‎

The problem with comprehensive and encompassing sanctions is that they do not always ‎differentiate between civilian and military needs, Kamrava explained. The sanctions imposed on ‎Iran rarely target only the state as these restrictive measures have devastating effects on the ‎civilian population as well. What is termed “dual-use technology” includes a whole spectrum of ‎technological goods that are integral to the enhancement of military capabilities and, yet, are also ‎essential for basic civilian industries. Civilian air travel is one such example where lack of ‎essential materials means that passenger carriers have steadily deteriorated over the decades and ‎cannot be refurbished. Further, humanitarian items, such as medicines, are exempt from the ‎sanctions regime, and, yet, because of the strict sanctions on the banking system, it is difficult to ‎conduct any ‎kind of financial transaction to attain them.‎

Quoting from a recent Gallop Poll that asked ordinary Iranians how the sanctions affect their ‎daily lives, Kamrava reported that most answered that they were personally affected. ‎Interestingly, however, although most agreed that the nuclear program was the main reason for ‎the imposition of sanctions, they blamed the United States for their personal suffering. ‎Thus, ‎“the sanctions ‎are actually having the opposite effect, as compared to what the United ‎States intended,” he explained.‎

Kamrava ended by drawing four broad conclusions, including: “sanctions have become the ‎favored US instrument of pressure;” “there is a self-perception of suffering among the Iranian ‎people;” “there is a high level of support for the nuclear program;” and, finally, “the US is getting ‎largely the blame for the Iranian predicament on the part of the Iranian people.”‎

Manata Hashemi gave the second presentation in which she analyzed how Iran’s social and ‎economic landscapes have been severely affected by US and EU sanctions, leading to a decline ‎in the value of the rial and a sharp increase in the price of daily goods. “It is not just imported ‎goods that have seen a price increase, the price of goods that are produced locally have also ‎increased as some merchants use the slide in the rial as an excuse to raise prices,” she explained. ‎Further, output across the country has seen a decline because of the restrictive measures, which ‎has, in turn, led to a slash in jobs and an increase in unemployment. ‎

However, contrary to international media discourses reporting on the extreme suffering of ‎ordinary Iranians in their daily lives, Hashemi explained how people – especially those in the ‎lower echelons of society – are coping with, and navigating around, these restrictions. “We know ‎that the sanctions have certainly bitten; they brought inflation and a collapse in the currency; they ‎have harmed many economic prospects for ordinary people, and, not surprisingly, they solidified ‎general sentiment against the West,” she argued. However, government organizations have ‎developed a series of campaigns in which handouts and utilities have been distributed to those ‎most in need. In conjunction with these official measures, “non-governmental organizations ‎‎(NGOs) have also contributed to mitigating the effects of sanctions by distributing non-cash ‎material goods like clothes, school supplies, and other essentials to the poorest,” Hashemi ‎contended.‎

People in the lower and middle echelons of society, do not simply wait for handouts, but get ‎actively involved in bettering their own lives through a series of creative measures in order to ‎soften the impact of the sanctions. Iranians have become more conscious of their spending habits ‎and have transformed their shopping practices by purchasing locally produced goods that have ‎been traditionally shunned as a sign of inferior quality and low social status. Other measures ‎include taking on extra jobs – often in the informal market – or taking part in reciprocal exchange ‎networks with family and friends. Hashemi said that “by allowing youths access to material ‎possessions, not only do these types of clothing exchange networks help them keep personal ‎expenses to a minimum, but, more importantly, they serve as a way for them to save face and to ‎keep up their reputation among their peers.”‎

Hashemi ended by saying that people in Iran are not just finding ways to survive in a country so ‎chocked by sanctions, but that they are striving for “the good life” and for a dignified life that is ‎full of hope and aspirations. “Despite the hardships that the sanctions have posed, Iranians inside ‎the county are finding ways to navigate around them to resist some of the more debilitating ‎effects, and even to accrue small social and economic gains in spite of them,” she concluded.‎

Mansoor Moaddel was the final speaker and he ended the panel discussion by highlighting two ‎major challenges to the Islamic Republic that “are capable of transforming the Islamic regime and ‎contributing to the rise of moderate and democratic politics in Iran.” The first is the international ‎community’s steadfast posture against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear policy and the second is a ‎growing opposition movement within the country that is calling for liberal values and democratic ‎governance. However, these two forces are not coordinated as the sanctions regime has ‎overshadowed any other form of engagement with Iran. The irony, Moaddel said, is that the ‎comprehensive sanctions have had more of a detrimental effect on democratic forces than it has ‎on undermining the regime and its capabilities. Effectively, the “sanctions have undermined the ‎private sector and the middle class, while enhancing the power of the Islamic Revolutionary ‎Guards,” he explained.‎

Citing results of two polls conducted in Iran in 2000 and ‎2005, Moaddel said that there has been ‎a major shift in the sentiments of ordinary Iranians towards liberal and nationalist values that ‎stand in stark opposition to that of the ruling Islamic regime. Currently, a large percentage of ‎Iranians value nationalism above religion as the basis for their identity. Moaddel argued that the ‎international community’s lack of support for these new liberal attitudes is a missed opportunity.‎

There are a variety of alternative “smart” sanction models that could be pursued and others ‎willing to support a change in strategy. Moaddel said that it was important to point out that not ‎all interest groups in the US are in agreement that imposing sanctions on Iran is the best way of ‎achieving objectives. While the Israeli lobby is keen on imposing ever more crippling sanctions, ‎many US corporations are against them and more in favor of continuing trade relations with Iran. ‎Moaddel argued that “effective sanctions, in my view, are ‘smart sanctions’ – those that ‎effectively undermine the repressive capability of the regime, including the revolutionary guards, ‎while enhancing the power of the democratic opposition.” ‎

Western governments cannot see beyond their fears of terrorism and weapons of mass ‎destruction, when instead they should be encouraging the flourishing of civil society and the ‎mobilization of the Iranian population towards calls for democratization. Moaddel concluded by ‎saying that ‎“the current crippling sanctions may in fact undermine the regime. They may at the ‎same time ‎destroy the organizations of the civil society and undermine the morale of the ‎oppositions. Smart ‎sanctions are good. Current crippling sanctions that are comprehensive and ‎universal, which ‎adversely affect the lives of all Iranians, are simply war by other means.”‎

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor of CIRS Publications