This brinksmanship did not originate out of the mullahs’ sudden desire to hold the world hostage, but rather as a direct and foreseeable response to the latest round of economic sanctions enacted by the United States of America against the Islamic Republic of Iran. This policy is not a new one; the U.S. already maintains a practically absolute program of trade sanctions against the entire Iranian economy. Executive Order 12959 issued by President Clinton prohibited all trade with Iran; the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act imposed severe penalties on any U.S. corporation that invests in Iran’s petroleum sector; Iranian banks are completely barred from transacting with U.S. financial institutions. Now, through the Kirk Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011, the U.S. has levied third party sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI). As of December 31st, this measure gave foreign companies a stark choice: one can either conduct business with the CBI or conduct business with the United States.
Foreign corporations have opted to do business with the United States and divest from the Central Bank of Iran. The effect of this mass pullout from the CBI has been a sharp drop in the strength of Iran’s currency. Since the Kirk Amendment went into effect, the rial has weakened by 20 percent compared to other currencies. Iranians are rushing to currency exchanges to trade their holdings in the rial for euros, dollars, any currency that might be more stable. Prices in Iranian bazaars are fluctuating so quickly that vendors of imported cell phones and computers are changing their prices by the hour. Commercial establishments dependent upon imports and exports are going out of business because no one wants to transact with a company with unpredictable prices. Iranian manufacturers have shuttered their factory doorsbecause they cannot afford to do business so long as the rial is subject to such erratic fluctuations.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently told the Majlis that the latest measures were “the most extensive . . . sanctions ever.” He continued, “this is the heaviest economic onslaught on a nation in history.”
The depreciation of the rial compared to foreign currencies has led to a painful spike of food prices in this nation highly dependent upon imported food. The price of food staples such as rice, bread, chicken, and lamb have risen by roughly 40 percent in Iranian bazaars. Iranian households have suddenly found themselves unable to put food on the table. Those who can have seen the quality of their food decline. Medications and pharmaceuticals are more expensive too. Though it is too early to tally much data, it appears likely that the Iranian people will likely suffer an acute rise in malnutrition, increased susceptability to disease, and an overall decline in health over the long run.
The NDAA sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran are as provocative as a full-on blockade. Congress has intentionally engineered a direct hit on the Iranian civilian economy. It’s no wonder why Ahmadinejad has resorted to saber-rattling in the Strait of Hormuz – the United States has all but declared economic war on Iran.
So why would the United States of America, send such a belligerent shot across the bow of a country that has not attacked us? Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), one of the GOP’s rising hawks on Middle Eastern affairs, explains the rationale for his eponymous Amendment:
"When we look at Iran today, we see an accelerating nuclear program, expanding ballistic missile program and a wholesale disregard for human rights . . . These are not the signs of successful U.S. sanctions against the regime. Iran continues to sponsor terror around the world, including most recently a failed attack on U.S. soil. In response, the Administration should move quickly to implement the most effective, non-military response - cutting off the Central Bank of Iran and collapsing the Iranian currency."Let’s break that down. Senator Kirk’s stated rationale for the CBI third party sanctions is that Iran is:
1) pursuing nuclear capabilities;Chew on that for a minute.
2) sponsoring terrorism;
3) violating the human rights of its subjects.
Let’s say that one of these days, say a year from now, the Iranian economy is so devastated and the people are conducting nation-wide strikes and mass demonstrations in the streets of Tehran ten times as massive as the unrest in 2009. The regime is on its knees. The Ayatollah Khameini completely disavows the Islamic Republic’s intention of pursuing nuclear technologies once and for all so that it can reallocate its resources towards food production. This fantasy is, in fact, the purported endgame of the CBI sanctions. In such a scenario, would the Obama (or Romney) administration declare the mission accomplished, that the Treasury Department is going to de-list the NDAA sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran?
Of course not – Senator Kirk’s original intent of the CBI sanctions was also to protest Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses. At that point, the Iran hawks would surely justify the crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s financial sponsorship of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Surely, Senator Kirk and his colleagues would argue, we must maintain the economic sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran until it forsakes these militant anti-Israel organizations. The Iran hawks would also point out Tehran’s purported direct organizing of terrorist acts – including the botched attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.
Let’s suppose the sanctions are really working, the Ayatollah Khameini has consulted with his finance ministers, and the mullahs decide that it is economically imperative to abandon their deadweight terrorist clients; Tehran de-friends Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Khameini declares in a globally-televised address that the Islamic Republic has disavowed its terrorist conduct once and for all. Would the State Department ever let Iran come in from the cold – like it did with Libya, Sudan and North Korea – and drop their designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism?
It appear unlikely that this could ever happen, because in 2007, at AIPAC’s request, the State Department labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps itself as a terrorist organization. Likewise, for Iran to ever shake its State Sponsor of Terrorism status, either the Revolutionary Guards would have to cease to be a terrorist organization, or the Iranian government would have to cease its financial and logistical support for its very own intelligence/paramilitary agency. This is as likely to happen, of course, as the U.S. is likely to cease our support for the CIA and the U.S. Army. The designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization was patently made to ensure that the Islamic Republic of Iran – so long as the regime exists in its present form - is never stripped of its designation as a terrorist state.
But let’s be optimistic, and suppose the economic conditions in Iran become so insufferable that the Islamic Republic not only abandons its nuclear ambitions, but throws Hamas & Co. under the bus, and disbands the Revolutionary Guards Corps. The only criterion to the Kirk Amendment left standing is the continuing criticism of its human rights violations. Suppose Tehran ends the random beatings, arrests and disappearances of peaceful demonstrators and dissidents. The Majlis vote to prohibit torture, abolish capital punishment, and end government censorship of the media. The Ayatollah even consents to a wholesale overhaul of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran so that it ensures equal rights for women, religious minorities, and homosexuals. Under such a pie-in-the sky fantasy scenario, wouldn’t the Obama (or Romney) administration be tempted to repeal the sanctions on the Central Bank?
Though it would be eminently reasonable to repeal the CBI sanctions if Iran substantially performs on each and every demand of the Kirk Amendment, it is difficult to imagine that any U.S. administration might ever back down on the sanctions program so long as Iran remains an Islamic Republic. Depending on how one construes the term human rights, an administration could justify continuing the CBI sanctions so long as Iran limits the participation of non-Islamic parties in its presidential and parliamentary elections. Even if the Guardian Council were to allow for truly democratic, multiparty elections, Iran hawks could always object to the fact that all real political power resides in the Supreme Leader who is the commander of the armed forces, who exercises great sway over all branches of government – and who is not elected by popular vote. One could argue that the Iranian people’s freedom of religion is violated unless the theocratic institutions of the Supreme Leader, the Assembly of Experts, and the Guardian Council are completely abolished.
An elected government composed of the Majlis and the Presidency might not suffice either. It appears that the 1979-81 hostage crisis left such a pall of humiliation on the American psyche that no administration, no Congress will ever be satisfied until the entire Iranian regime is eviscerated to a pulp and a completely new regime is erected from scratch. When U.S. officials talk about human rights in Iran, they often imply the right to be free of the Islamic Republic.
It appears that the real end goal of the CBI sanctions is an aim which most Iran hawks are reluctant to flat-out mention: to inflict hardship onto the Iranian civilian population so as to stir up discontent with the Iranian government. A January 10th article in The Washington Post by Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson quoted a senior U.S. intelligence official laying out the strategy:
The Obama administration sees economic sanctions against Iran as building public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons program, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.The original version of this January 10th Post article quoted the anonymous administration official as stating that the ultimate end goal of the sanctions was, in fact, to foment “regime collapse.” A later version of the same article was amended, sheepishly backpedaling that that statement was “incorrectly reported.” Either way, this off-the-record story was a veritable bombshell as it explicitly named the hardship and discontentment of the Iranian population as an express goal of the CBI sanctions.
In addition to influencing Iranian leaders directly, the official said, “another option here is that [sanctions] will create hate and discontent at the street level so that the Iranian leaders realize that they need to change their ways.”
The intelligence official’s remarks pointed to what has long been an unstated reality of sanctions: Although designed to pressure a government to change its policies, they often impose broad hardships on a population. . . .
A senior administration official, speaking separately, acknowledged that public discontent was a likely result of more punitive sanctions against Iran’s already faltering economy, but said that is not the direct intent. . . .
“The question is whether people in the government feel pressure from the fact that there’s public discontent,” the official said, “versus whether the sanctions themselves are intended to collapse the regime.”
But the question remains; was the first reporting of this article retracted because the invocation of “regime collapse” was a misquote? Or did this anonymous senior administration official simply say too much? Are we sabotaging the Iranian civilian economy because we want the people to write to their Representatives in the Majlis to vote “Nay” on a nuclear program bill? Would Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon be content with an Islamic Republic sans nuclear capabilities? Or are we going to maintain these draconian sanctions until the Islamic Republic lies in the same ash heap of history as the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahariya?
We have conducted regime change in Iran before, and Iran has enjoyed the blessings of democratic self-government – though not in that order. The brief reign of Iranian democracy lasted during the brief window from 1951 to 1953 under Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh was as revered a nationalist leader in the Age of Decolonization could be. But after Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the Truman administration enacted an embargo on nationalized Iranian oil. President Eisenhower followed up by authorizing Kermit Roosevelt to lead the joint CIA/MI5 mission Operation Ajax. Roosevelt and his cohorts fomented political instability in Iran with bombings and demonstrations, destabilized the Mossadegh government and re-installed the Shah Reza Pahlavi by coup d’état. Embargo proved to be but a prelude to direct CIA subversion.
Neoconservatives like Senator Kirk are gaga over the Central Bank of Iran sanctions because they hope that these restrictions might achieve the same end of Operation Ajax by purely economic means. But this strategy inadvertently showcases the extent to which Neoconservativism borrows generously from more radical (and European!) ideologies. According to the Marxist-Leninist "immiseration thesis", the worse the economy, the more “immiserated” the proletariat, the more radicalized the proletariat becomes, and the greater chance of political revolution. Trotsky’s corollary to the Marxist-Leninist “immiseration thesis” was essentially that farsighted vanguards of humanity could speed up the process of political revolution by deliberately sabotaging the economy. Similarly, with the CBI sanctions the Neocons expressly aim to foment so much havoc in the Iranian economy that the Iranian people are thoroughly “immiserated" that they become radicalized, and bring about regime change on their own accord.
What happens if the sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran don’t succeed in dislodging the Islamic Republic? 13 years of comprehensive sanctions maintained by all of the United Nations against Iraq did nothing to remove Saddam Hussein. After 6 years of Israeli-American-European strangulation, Hamas still maintains its fiefdom in the Gaza Strip. After 52 years of unilateral U.S. embargo, the Castro brothers are still in power in Cuba. With the exception of perhaps South Africa and Chile, trade sanctions have rarely succeeded in fomenting regime change.
In the aforementioned cases, economic sanctions have certainly achieved the intending goal of “immiseration”; embargoes plunged the Cuban, Iraqi, and Palestinian populations into even more devastating poverty. But the undesired regimes did not budge. Though the incumbent regimes have been able to blame the people’s economic misery on America and the Western powers, and they have benefited from the “rally-around-the-flag” effect which often results from acts popularly characterized as foreign aggression. The manifestations of this effect can be transnational and quite sinister; in his seminal fatwa, Osama bin Laden justified his waging jihad against the American people partly upon the misery suffered by the Iraqi people under UN sanctions.
The NDAA’s latest salvo against the Iranian economy might not even disincentivize the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. According to the Post’s anonymous administration official, “[the CBI sanctions program] could have the opposite effect from what’s intended,” he said, “and impel the Iranian leader to decide, ‘We’re going to build that nuclear weapon.’ We’ve thought of that.”
Don’t get me wrong; the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most despicable regimes in the world today. President Ahmadinejad, the Ayatollah Khameini, and all agents and bureaucrats complicit in the murder of peaceful demonstrators in 2009 ought to be indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity. Any fair observer must look forward to the day when the Iranian people inevitably rise up and overthrow the Ayatollah and the mullahs in favor of a new, more democratic form of government. However, it appears that “immiseration”-based trade sanctions might be neither suitable nor necessary to achieve this end.
Trade sanctions with the express purpose of inflicting economic pain upon a civilian population should not be blithely enacted without due regard for their moral price and their real human costs. Terrorism is generally defined as the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians in order to achieve political ends. The Geneva Centre for Security Policy defines economic terrorism as “varied, coordinated and sophisticated, or massive destabilizing actions [undertaken by transnational or non-state actors] to disrupt the economic stability of a state, groups of states, or society.” Maybe the CBI sanctions program is not economic terrorism because it is conducted by state actors. Maybe it is isn't economic terrorism when we do it. Maybe the CBI sanctions program is economic terrorism - but if it leads to the downfall of the Islamic Republic, the ends justify the means. Maybe it depends on what the definition of is is.
One can be a steadfast critic of the Iranian government and also a critic of one's own country's attempts to thwart the Iranian government. There is a sizeable camp of critics who loathe the Iranian regime and who also believe that the less foreigners do to meddle in that country's internal politics, the better for the legitimacy of the Iranian reform movement. Some of us despise the Islamic Republic and cannot wait to see the day when the Iranian people are free from its tyranny, but we also believe that the Iranian people’s struggle for political freedom is theirs and theirs alone.