Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, posted on his blog last week a letter from a friend who witnessed an encounter between an Iranian opposition activist and U.S. State Department officials at a recent conference on Iran:
A couple of friends were invited to a conference last week to present the perspective of the Iranian opposition about the current situation in Iran. They told me that during their talk at the conference they lambasted the sanctions policy and told the attendants that sanctions are counterproductive and detrimental to the middle class in Iran and the opposition’s social base. When a State Department representative asked them “What do you expect us to do for Iran?” they said “Lift the sanctions. That would be the best thing you can do for Iran!”
My Iranian friends at the conference explained that one of the US diplomats said that the US priority in Iran is not human rights violations and not public opinion in Iran. Rather, the diplomat insisted that Washington’s main concern was Iran’s nuclear program, its impact on the security of Israel, and avenues for regime-change. He mentioned Pakistan as an example where regime-change is no longer possible because of its nuclear capabilities. The US diplomat added that regime-change causes instability which is dangerous in the case of a country with nuclear capabilities. So time is running out for regime-change in Iran. This triggered a quarrel between some of the Iranians and the speaker to the effect that one of the prominent opposition leaders retorted that the US should have no role in changing the regime and that it should be the choice solely for the Iranian people. He went on to ask that if the US was not concerned with human rights in Iran “why did you invite us here in the first place”! He said that we have been insisting that the human rights should be the central issue, however your strategic concern is the nuclear program.
This account is revealing for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it recounts a State Department official admitting that part of the calculus in heaping harsh economic sanctions on Iran is to prevent the government from attaining a nuclear capability, not because of concerns about proliferation, but because it would hinder U.S. efforts at regime change. This clears up what seems to be a mystery of why the U.S. would impose supposedly punitive sanctions on Iran despite the intelligence consensus that they have no nuclear weapons program and have demonstrated no intention of getting one. If Iran can ever quickly develop a nuclear deterrent through know-how and technological capability, this constrains Washington’s power to overthrow the regime and replace it with an obedient client (not a first in the case of Iran, of course). That is an unacceptable amount of power to afford an adversary. The threat to Israeli security and the notion that Iran would use nuclear weapons for anything other than to deter aggressive adversaries is quite simply a manufactured concern.
Another reason this account is important is it illustrates how economic sanctions have consequences that are both morally reprehensible and that run counter to the neo-conservative approach which aims to sanction the regime and empower some supposedly democratic opposition that can overthrow the regime. As Landis writes, “Anti-Assad activists designed and lobbied for the sanctions imposed on Syria by the West. They wanted to undermine the regime and create an environment of crisis in the country with the aim of toppling the regime.” The problem is that waging economic warfare on a country is harmful to the people and any viable opposition. Sanctions “undercut the opposition almost as much as they do the regime,” Landis writes, and “they destroy the middle class and standard of living” for the bulk of the population. The same happened with Iraq in the genocidal sanctions regime of the 1990s and the same applies to Iran now.