Persian Coercion

Coming in at #14 on Truman’s recent “Top 40 National Security Moments of the Last Four Years” list are the Iran Sanctions.  Thus far, they have served as an important tool wielded by the international community in the effort to get Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program. Beyond the numbers, though, there are also signs within Iran that show the sanctions are having an impact, on several different levels.

First, there’s the overall impact on the economy.  A recent estimate found that the sanctions are costing Iran more than $3 billion per month as its oil exports drop to half of what they were last year.  Moreover, Iran’s mismanagement of its economy is adding to the impact, as the New York Times described:

“[E]conomists also agree that much of the damage to the economy has been self-inflicted, saying that the Ahmadinejad government went on an import spending spree after oil revenues started hitting record levels from 2005 on."

With the government buying so many goods from abroad, many domestic producers were forced to lay off workers and close factories. That, in turn, has made Iran more vulnerable to international sanctions, they say. Companies that might have helped produce goods to replace those blocked by sanctions have long since gone out of business, as the owners shifted their wealth to speculation, building and selling properties, foreign currency or raw materials.”

Some Iranian rhetoric may make things seem rosy – President Ahmadinejad contends that the sanctions have been good for the economy – and Iran has taken a hard line on the suspension of its nuclear program.  But cracks in the armor are also emerging.  Mohsen Rezaie, the Secretary of the advisory body to the Supreme Leader known as the Expediency Council (and Ahmadinejad’s rival in the last presidential campaign), offered a rare public acknowledgement that the sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy.   As well, Mohammed-Hassan Asferi, a Member of Parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, suggested that Iran could consider a temporary suspension of 20 percent enrichment activity if, among other things, the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) met its enrichment needs and lifted the sanctions.

Then there was the recent Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN) poll asking Iranians, “Which way do you prefer to confront the unilateral sanctions of the West against Iran?” In a shock, 63 percent of respondents chose “the suspension of uranium enrichment in exchange for gradual lifting of sanctions”, far outweighing the percentage of those who chose resisting the sanctions (18 percent) or closing the Straits of Hormuz (19 percent).  The results set off a firestorm in Iran and IRINN quickly removed the poll from its web site, claiming that results were interfered with and that, in actuality, no more than 24 percent actually chose the suspension of uranium enrichment.  Even more interesting, though, as BBC News pointed out, is that state-owned media generally avoids policy discussions.  It surmises that the poll's publication was possibly “a deliberate act by some officials in Iran who believe that the time has now come for a review of the media policy of the regime on the nuclear issue.”

At the beginning of this month, the E.U.’s oil embargo against Iran went into effect, further ratcheting up the pressure.  Later this month, another set of talks between the P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to occur.  The sanctions have already provided the P5+1 with more leverage in negotiations.  Yet, we also need to monitor the range of Iranian (and Iranians) reaction to these sanctions.  Managing them in accordance will be imperative to sustaining their coercive value.

Jessie Daniels is a Truman Security Fellow.