The Compass

« Extreme Aggregate Makeover | Blog Home Page | Arm for an Arm »

Sanctions or Nothing, Ctd.

Daniel Larison responds to my take on his Iran sanctions argument:

Of course, refraining from imposing punitive measures on a state with which we have no necessary conflict of interest is not “doing nothing.” It could be the prelude to rapprochement and the normalization of relations, the opening of economic and diplomatic ties, and the de-escalation of tensions through the region. That is not really “doing nothing.” It only counts as inaction for those who have been conditioned by the nature of foreign policy debate in this country to equate coercion with “doing something.” One of the reasons why we routinely define “doing something” in terms of coercion is that our foreign policy is not tied to concrete interests of the American people, but has instead become a hegemonic project with a life and vested interests of its own.

I can appreciate Daniel's broader concerns regarding America's "hegemonic project," and it's in part why I read his blog regularly. I of course don't agree, but my disagreement is the respectful kind. Same goes for many of his more specific points in this case on sanctions. As I noted in my initial post, I view sanctions—and all their various levels of severity—to be an often necessary evil when diplomatic options have been exhausted.

Larison argues that "sanctions did not “work” to topple Hussein’s government," but this is half the point, and half beside the point. The purpose of the UN sanctions was not to topple Saddam Hussein, but rather, to compel him to disarm and repay war debts for the invasion of Kuwait. That's it. In a broader sense, they were intended to keep a hegemonic power with a clear record of militaristic defiance from ever acting on those militaristic urges again. As far as that went, the sanctions were indeed successful.

And I think the same idea applies when dealing with Iran sanctions. These sanctions—even the so-called crippling sanctions—are not intended to topple the Islamic Republic or force them to completely denuclearize. Far from it. These sanctions are intended to make Iran comply with three UN Security Council resolutions calling for the halt of uranium enrichment. Not one relevant actor is threatening the Iranian regime's security (with perhaps one glaring exception), nor are they questioning Iran's legitimate right to nuclear power.

All that said, I still understand and appreciate Larison's concerns about sanctions, so on that note I will agree with him partially as a reluctant disciple of this specific sanctions plan myself.

But I must take further issue with Larison's other point on the options remaining for the West. The notion that the United States and the greater international community have somehow failed to reach out to the Islamic Republic in an effort to normalize relations and ease economic sanctions is totally false and unfounded.

Every single American president since Carter attempted to bridge the gap with the revolutionary regime. The pattern usually went like something as follows: some type of rhetorical niceties, followed by the easing of sanction; followed then by some heartwarming gesture of soft power and bilateral trust; followed then by some form of Iranian backlash or withdrawal.

President George H.W. Bush famously said in his inaugural address that "goodwill begets goodwill," and his administration made its own limited efforts to negotiate with Tehran. President Clinton—reversing a round of sanctions he had earlier imposed on Iran via executive order—attempted to reconcile with what appeared to be a softening Iranian regime, and even had Secretary of State Madeline Albright apologize for American involvement in the coup of 1953. Albright, more importantly, met with senior counterparts in the Iranian government; something that hadn't happened since President Carter's early efforts at rapprochement.

Even George W. Bush—yes, "axis of evil" George Bush—attempted to work in limited capacity with the Iranians when applicable. Tehran had a role in the both the pre- and post-invasion planning stages in Afghanistan, and American officials had attempted several times to meet with Iranian counterparts on Iraqi security matters.

The European powers have engaged in "critical dialogue" with Iran for years, offering the easing of sanctions and WTO access—all rebuffed and deemed insufficient. Russia—in an apparent tweak to the uranium plan Tehran agreed to this week—had initially offered in 2005 to enrich uranium for Iran, only to be rejected.

In short, punitive measures never existed in a vacuum, and they have always been the result of exhausted efforts by the international community to engage and include Iran in the global community. But engagement requires two willing and agreeable participants, and up until now Iran has lacked such will.

So if I conflate Larison's proposal for engagement and rhetorical niceties with inaction it's only because his suggestions have all been exhausted to no avail in the past. History demonstrates that Iran has in fact been moved by international pressures, and it's in the interest of the entire international community—not just the United States—that Iran be so moved.