As the United States engages in multilateral negotiations over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, the Obama administration is discussing imposing further sanctions in the event that Iran is unwilling to meet international demands of transparency and accountability in its nuclear program. The administration is using the threat of further sanctions in order to pressure Iran to acquiesce to U.S. demands in the diplomatic arena. Unfortunately for the Obama administration, the threat of sanctions is unlikely to significantly alter the Iranian position on uranium enrichment.
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran has been subject to some form of economic sanction. In that time, Iranians have adapted to these restrictions by inventing ways to circumvent sanctions in the form of black market networks. These networks allow goods that would otherwise be blocked from entering the country to be smuggled across the border from neighboring countries like Oman, across the Strait of Hormuz. Alongside these black market goods are items entering Iran via its two largest trading partners, China and Russia. There are currently one hundred Chinese state firms operating inside Iran, with billions of Chinese dollars invested in Iranian infrastructure projects. As large oil importers, both China and Russia are dependent on Iranian reserves to meet their ever-increasing energy demands. For these reasons, Russia and China have been, and continue to be, reluctant to support economic sanctions against Iran.
Even if the Obama administration succeeded in persuading Russia and China to vote for, and uphold, further sanctions in the United Nations Security Council, it is unlikely that the Iranian position on enrichment would alter significantly. The uranium enrichment program has become a potent symbol of Iranian independence, as the nationalization of oil was in the 1950’s. Not even reformist elements within Iranian society are willing to abandon the enrichment program. Iranian officials consistently point to the fact that countries like Israel, Pakistan and India have developed nuclear weapons outside of the Nonproliferation Treaty, without eliciting international ire or the threat of sanctions, to support their claim that enrichment is a right granted to all NPT signatories. As long as uranium enrichment is associated with independence from Western influence, it is unlikely that Iran will readily abandon the program in the face of further sanctions.
In many ways, economic sanctions benefit the dominant regime. Often, such sanctions result in severe humanitarian consequences for average Iranians. Their ability to fight back against the government’s encroachment on civil liberties is hampered by more immediate concerns like access to potable water, and maintaining a steady supply of food and electricity. This strengthens the power and influence of the security and military apparatus, organizations like the Basij militia that were used to violently suppress opposition protests in the aftermath of the most recent presidential election. Western intervention in the form of sanctions also becomes a handy scapegoat for Iranian officials looking to place the blame for Iran’s ills anywhere other than on themselves. Sanctions allow the government to rally the masses in opposition to a common enemy, namely the West. Indeed, over the years the Iranian regime has learned how to use sanctions to its advantage, to the detriment of ordinary Iranian citizens.
Economic sanctions have proven ineffective in altering Iranian behavior. This is a major challenge for the Obama administration as it employs the threat of further sanctions to cajole Iran into making concessions on its uranium enrichment program. Iran’s ability to circumvent sanctions in the form of black market networks and trade with China and Russia, coupled with Iranian pride in the nuclear program, and the government’s ability to use sanctions in order to manipulate public opinion in its favor, all contribute to the futility of the administration’s current policy.