Sanctions not the answer

Latest round of economic sanctions against Iran have ignored legitimate Iranian efforts towards diplomacy

On Nov. 21, major Western powers announced new co-ordinated economic sanctions against Iran amidst continued speculation over Iranian nuclear activity.

“The message is clear,” US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said during the announcement. “If Iran’s intransigence continues, it will face increasing pressure and isolation.”

This warmongering rhetoric against Iran is hardly new.

While it’s difficult to predict what the future holds, two trends are hard to miss. First, the US and Europe have failed to take advantage of genuine Iranian attempts to make their nuclear efforts transparent.

Second, increased economic and military pressure against Iran has historically contributed to the rise of Iran’s new military class at the cost of ordinary people and civil society.

A military strike against Iran may in all likelihood accelerate this unfortunate phenomenon.

In order to reach this conclusion, we need to step back and think about how the dominant political calculus against Iran got us here in the first place.

In fact, Iran’s nuclear program has evolved through a series of five roughly-defined phases.

In its first phase, the pre-1979 secular dictatorship under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi contracted German and French companies to develop Iran’s nuclear program. The plan was to have 23 nuclear plants in Iran by 2000, with undeclared military intentions. The regime was placed in power by a 1953 CIA-engineered coup and enjoyed the broad support of Western countries.

During its second phase after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran’s nuclear program was shut down and was deemed an unnecessary project resulting from excessive Westernization. Moreover, parts of the facilities were damaged by Iraqi bombers during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, there was a concerted Western-Arab effort to counter Iran’s military rise against Iraq under Saddam Hussein. This included the sale of vast military stockpiles as well as chemical and biological agents that were used against Iranian foot soldiers.

In its third phase, Iran’s new Reconstructionist government saw economic value in nuclear technology. But as it was attempting to reconcile diplomatic relationships, avoid flaring regional tensions and bypass America’s annoying interventions, the government decided to develop its nuclear facilities incognito.

In its fourth phase, an exiled Islamo-Marxist opposition group known as the MKO (classified as a terrorist organization by the US for killing Americans) blew the whistle on the Natanz nuclear facility in 2002.

The hostile atmosphere generated by the aggressive Bush administration coupled with the Iranian government’s desire to reconcile with the US led to an effective shutdown as part of a confidence-building measure.

Iran and Western countries were expected to hash out a grand bargain before Iran resumed its nuclear activities. To honour their word, the Iranian government allowed the United Nations to install security cameras in the Natanz facility to ensure no activities were taking place.

The Reformists had essentially gambled to restore relations with the US, a huge victory for Iranian politics.

Bush’s diplomatic approach, however, completely missed this golden opportunity. The confidence-building measures went nowhere. The Europeans and Americans demanded a complete shutdown without any compromise. This was met with some internal dissent in Iran as an unnecessary appeasement to so-called “Western bullies.”

Conservative elements in Iran who were vying for power, known as Principlists and backed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, seized this as an opportunity to lash at the Reformists while preventing any major breakthrough.

As a result, the nuclear program became one of the most politically-charged issues in domestic Iranian politics.

In its fifth phase, the Principlists had gained control of all branches of government through a mixture of political intimidation and populist measures.

In 2005, Principlist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the demise of negotiations, removed the UN cameras and resumed nuclear research for what he stated was peaceful purposes.

It was at this time that Iran’s nuclear program became an explosive issue in Western media, without any real understanding of the past four phases.

There’s legitimacy to Iran’s desire for nuclear technology on peaceful grounds. While Iranians were split between nuclear weapons, an overwhelming majority were in favour of nuclear power and the promises it held for advances in medicine, agriculture and energy.

Despite this, European and American governments began engaging in aggressive sanctions against Iran. The Bush administration accused Iran of developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) — the apex of hypocrisy to the majority of Iranians, as it was the Americans and Europeans who had supplied Saddam with weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

The financial impact of the sanctions was minimized by booming oil revenue controlled by the Iranian government. It’s also important to note that Iran’s privatization efforts under the Principlists had been hijacked by their allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the military body in charge of Iran’s nuclear efforts.

This led to a steady but sure militarization of Iran’s economy. Sanctions against Iranian companies only contributed to this trend, as the IRGC began monopolizing foreign trade.

From 2005 to 2009, there was a significant economic power shift towards the IRGC and away from civil society. One of the unintended consequences of sanctions may very well have been the rigged 2009 presidential elections where the IRGC played a crucial role in suppressing the protests.

In what may be a sixth phase, the nuclear program has lost its broad support by a huge segment of Iranian society. Members of the disenfranchised Green movement, a spinoff of the Reformists, were violently sidelined in 2009 and see the nuclear program as an unnecessary cost to Iran’s rising social and economic woes.

The deterioration of civil rule caused in part by the sanctions and military threats may very well result in the militarization of the program.

Currently, the Principlist front has fractured and Iran’s power dynamics are subject to unknown change in the next Parliamentary elections in March 2012, which may bring unexpected twists to Iran’s nuclear program.

Western powers must not continue treating Iran as a singular, ahistorical entity when imposing economic and military pressure. These tactics have ironically empowered the same authoritarian elements they are hoping to contain, with Iranian civil society paying the brunt of the damages.

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