Don’t Overestimate the Power of Sanctions!

A series of crippling sanctions brought Iran back to the table with the 5+1 to talk about its nuclear program. After the Istanbul nuclear talks in April, the international community is now waiting for the second round in Baghdad in 23 May 2012. As an Iranian, I have been observing the long-time controversy over the Iranian nuclear program from its onset at the time the reformists were in power in Iran; at that time, Iran suspended enrichment and accepted additional protocol in the Tehran Declaration of 2003.

I believe the Baghdad nuclear talks are critical: they can either open a road of long-term constructive talks between Iran and the US or lead to an impasse that bodes a military confrontation. Therefore, it is important to consider the way in which the US should approach these talks. The key point I wish to emphasize is the way sanctions should be understood in relation to Iran domestic politics and its security concerns.

After the first round of talks in Istanbul the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, asked the 5+1 to lift the sanctions as a step toward building the lost trust between the two parties. Obviously, the recent sanctions on Iranian oil production as well as its central bank are causing pain in the country. While I believe that these sanctions successfully brought Iran back to the negotiating table, it is important for the US and its allies to correctly assess the influence of sanctions. To do so, they must take into consideration the history of Iran’s behavior in opposing the United States as well as its nuclear program policy.

The main threat to the talks in Baghdad will be a wrong estimation on the part of the US and its allies, choosing to rely solely on the threat of sanctions. If the US and its allies play the role of the party with the upper hand and expect Iran alone to compromise its ambitions, the talks will lead to a dead end.

There are signs that indicate the readiness of Iran to compromise during the coming talks in the hope of lifting the current crippling sanctions, and in the longer term normalizing relations with the international community. After the talks in Istanbul, Ali Akbar Salehi announced ‘we won’t let the talks lead to a dead end.’ Also, the Iranian Ambassador to Russia talked about the possibility of Iran accepting additional protocol.

There are two vital points for Iran, however, to be considered by the West; first, Iran wants to keep the right to continue enrichment in the country, even if at a very low level. The second and most important thing, now, is the way the outcome of the negotiations is being presented to the outside world. For Iranian negotiators, the outcome should be palatable to public opinion in Iran, especially to the hardliners in the Islamic Republic. What the 5+1 should learn from its experience with Iran is the presence of different power sources in the country.

When, in 2003, the reformists in power suspended enrichment, hardliners criticized the reformists’ policy as so soft they got nothing in return. At that time, Ali Larijani, the current Iranian head of parliament, said “in return for the pearl we gave them [the West], they rewarded us with a candy.” Hardliners believe that if Iran compromises, it cannot get anything; in fact, they believe that if Iran takes one step back, the West will want them to take ten more, all the while heading aggressively towards them; the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, explicitly expressed this view of Iran’s relation with the West.

It is a mistaken calculation to rely on sanctions for more than bringing Iran back to nuclear talks, prepared to compromise on some of its ambitions. The 5+1 should try to continue the talks from an equal footing, understanding Iranian security concerns triggered by the US, as well as how the regime will gain support at home for the outcome of the talks.

Pushing too much to get what Iran is not ready to give, because of relying unduly on sanctions, can alienate Iran and push it toward isolation and dealing with sanctions through other strategies. Even though the crippling sanctions have caused pain, giving up the nuclear program in its totality in order to lift the sanctions can be as great a disaster for the regime as sanctions.

It is important to remind US policy makers that there are different layers of power centers in the Islamic Republic. If the US cannot negotiate with the current ones which have come to the talks, certainly there is no way it can negotiate with those who are against any discussion of its nuclear program with the international community. For these groups, the nuclear program is considered an undeniable right.

“Never hate your enemies!” (The Story of the Iranian Opposition in Exile)

Al Pacino, as the Godfather, gives his successor, Andy Garcia, a golden piece of advice when Garcia is frustrated with his enemy: “Never hate your enemy, it affects your judgment.” This line is striking because it justifiably questions one of our common habits: hatred towards our enemies; it briefly but persuasively tells us objectivity is vital when facing our enemies. “The Godfather” enjoys a fascinating dubbed version in Persian, and in fact the above-mentioned quote is very popular among Iranians. In spite of the line’s popularity, the principle is non-existent in the approach the Iranian opposition in exile has implemented towards its “enemy”, the Islamic regime in Iran. An objective understanding of the Islamic regime has been missing for decades, from the very time of the regime’s founding.

A quick review of Iranian opposition literature on the web (most of them financed by foreign governments), provide us with the following impression of the Islamic Republic: a regime composed of a few ignorant mullahs whose main characteristic is to be ideological and irrational/anti-rational in their domestic policies and in their international ones.[1] At an even more extreme level, some of the famous sociopolitical analysts believe that the country’s affairs are being managed through prayer beads,  “divine” dreams, and prayers.[2] However, once the hatred is set aside and an objective look is taken, it is not hard to see that the Islamic Republic as a very rational agent in its decision making, both in its domestic policies and in managing its international affairs; its policies represent a realist approach in pursuing security and a balance of power. Let’s examine some of the Islamic Republic’s policies to see if it acts rationally.

As a matter of fact, the Islamic Republic has successfully controlled the population growth in the country to the extent that current population growth in Iran is 1.24% compared to the US 1% is not a big difference. It is also a fact that the rate of women’s education in Iran is the highest in the Middle East, mainly because even more conservative and religious families were encouraged by mullahs to send their daughters to school. Interestingly, women compose 60 percent of current university students in Iran.[3] Surprisingly, a year ago, without any pressure or prescription from International Monetary Fund, the Iranian government eliminated subsidies. Economists around the globe praised the Islamic Republic for this action and considered it as an important step toward economic reform.[4] The opposition, however, did not approve of this policy and considered it a faulty one, even counting down the time until its failure. Why? Because, for the Iranian opposition in exile, any policy that the Islamic Republic implements is faulty by default.

Iran’s nuclear program has been its most controversial policy in recent years; the one that has caused the country to be targeted by the most crippling sanctions. For the opposition, the Islamic Republic is an ideological regime, trying to develop atomic bombs for its irrational ambitions. Members of the opposition argue that Iran does not need nuclear energy; it is more rational for the country to use solar energy or other sources; they advertise the idea that atomic energy is outdated. However, they do not mention why the US recently approved construction of two new nuclear reactors in South Carolina; or why Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have planned to construct tens of these nuclear plants in coming years; all this while these countries enjoy a lot of sun.

The issues are more controversial when it comes to the military aspects of this program. Should Iran pursue its nuclear program to get nearer to the capability of developing an atomic bomb? Is this an ideological act by a fundamentalist regime? The opposition’s answer is simply, yes. The analyses presented in non-Persian media, however, reach a totally different answer. For specialists in international relations, it is a very rational act from the side of the Islamic regime; a country surrounded by nuclear powers, Russia, Pakistan, India, Israel, and the US, is rationally justified in pursuing nuclear capabilities. No one claims the Islamic regime is pursuing the atomic bomb for ideological reasons; even the Israelis’ self-acknowledged concern is losing their unique position as the only atomic power in the Middle East and the strongest in the region.[5]

The opposition should ask itself one critical question: How has such an ideological-anti-rational regime been able to stay in power in spite of all the efforts of the US and other regional and international powers for its destruction? Answering this question, some in the opposition appeal to a conspiracy theory that the US and Britain have been supporting the Islamic regime to stay in power.

If we could imagine Al Pacino as the Godfather speaking to the opposition, it is easy to imagine him telling them they need to be more objective if they want to be considered a rational actor by their own people, as well as foreign actors.

[1] For instance, you can refer to these websites:


[2] Here you can find an article in which Majid Mohammad make such claims:

[3] For some excellent analyses of the Iranian economy, and specifically Family Economy in Iran, you can refer to the works of a VirginiaTech Professor, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani. Professor Salehi travels to Iran regularly:

[4] For instance you can read about this reform here:

[5] For some examples, you can refer to this link in which Andrew Besevic, professor at Boston University, argues that Iran’s behavior in terms of its nuclear project is totally rational:

Farid Zakaria on CNN:


Meir Dagan (former head of Mossad): threat/?tag=contentMain;cbsCarousel

Aaron Goldstein: