No, Sanctions Did Not Prompt Iran’s New Diplomacy


The U.S. and Iranian presidents are probably going to meet face to face at the U.N. today. “They may even shake hands, ” CNN reports. This would be pretty significant given the history of enmity between these two nations and it would follow several weeks of what cable news annoyingly refers to as a “charm offensive” by Iran’s new reformist president Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani has been aggressively getting America’s attention, writing in the Washington Post about the need for a constructive diplomatic relationship.

Why this sudden change in Iranian engagement with the U.S.? If you ask the Obama administration or most anyone in Congress: the sanctions did it!

Trita Parsi, president and founder of the National Iranian American Council, has a piece up in Reuters refuting the claim that the U.S.-led sanctions regime is what brought about Iran turn to diplomacy.

Washington’s “narrative,” writes Parsi, that Iran’s latest attempt for rapprochement with America is due to “the inevitable pain of sanctions finally changing Tehran’s nuclear calculus,” doesn’t pass muster. Some history is in order to get closer to the truth:

Rouhani and the new esteemed foreign minister, Javad Zarif, played crucial roles in past Iranian efforts to engineer an opening to Washington — almost a decade before the strangulating sanctions.

Zarif led the collaboration with the United States in Afghanistan in 2001, where the two countries closely cooperated to oust the Taliban and establish a new constitutional government in that country. The Iranians were hoping Washington would appreciate their strategic help and improve relations. Instead, President George W. Bush listed Iran in the “Axis of Evil.” The Iranian plan for rapprochement fell apart.

Two years later, this same team of Iranian officials offered the Bush administration a “grand bargain” proposal, addressing all major areas of conflict between the two countries. Among other things, the Iranians offered to open up their nuclear program for transparency, collaborate with the U.S. in Iraq, restrain Hamas and Islamic jihad and even indirectly recognize Israel.

The Bush White House rejected the offer out of hand.

Before the Ahmadinejad government took over, Zarif and Rouhani — who was then national security adviser and nuclear negotiator — reached out to the European Union. They offered to cap Iran’s nuclear program at 3,000 centrifuges. The EU, however, did not take the offer.

These efforts preceded the sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy. And they were made with the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader, though he maintains he believed they would fail.

Americans are notoriously bad at history. And that’s why most people seem to be buying into this narrative about the effectiveness of economic sanctions: you need to disregard even the recent history in order to believe it.

It’s more likely the new push for detente is happening in spite of the sanctions, since economic warfare typically hardens the positions of geo-political rivals. Back in February, the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a paper assessing the efficacy of the sanctions on their own terms. “Without doubt, they are crippling Iran’s economy,” the paper finds. “But are they succeeding” in pressuring Iran to concede to U.S. demands on its nuclear program? “[P]lainly they are not.”

Robert Pape, a political scientist at Chicago University, years ago examined 115 cases of economic sanctions over almost 80 years and found only 5 that could be considered a success (that is, the recipient nation changed policy in the desired direction of the imposer nation). That is a horrible track record.

As I discussed in my latest interview with Scott Horton, detente between the U.S. and Iran makes a lot of sense in a realpolitik sort of way. That may have something to do with the decision to reach out.

As an addendum, we shouldn’t forget what the sanctions are really about at their core: deliberately impoverishing millions of Iranians, crippling the economy, inducing high inflation and unemployment, and blocking the import of critically needed medicines. Such an approach should never be praised as a wonderfully effective tool of foreign policy. It’s using state coercion to starve innocent people of their livelihood.