Talk of sanctions against Iran is in the air again, Hillary Clinton’s beloved “crippling sanctions” which we heard about in April but about which she has being lying low since: her President’s thinking fortunately seems to be somewhat more sophisticated than that.
The specific proposal on the table at the moment is a proposed embargo on all exports of refined petroleum products to Iran. Legislation to give effect to this has sufficiently high levels of support in both houses of the US Congress to “breeze through”, in the words of California Democrat Representative Jane Harman, who is an active participant in Congressional intelligence and national security issues.
There is a three-fold rationale behind this idea, the different components of which appeal in different measure to its many backers:
- It offers a way of persuading Israel that it does not need to carry out military strikes against Iran.
- An embargo on refined products would cripple Iran because it lacks the capacity to refine all the petroleum products it needs.
- Now is the time to really hurt Iran because it is weakened by internal turmoil.
This is a seriously dumb idea, for too many reasons to enumerate here, but here are some of the main ones:
- The United States does not need to be creating pleading rationales for Israel to refrain from unilateral military action against Iran. It has many sources of leverage on Israel if it ever chose to use them.
- While ever the United States has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan it should be prepared to be very tough on any Israeli adventurism directed against Iran.
- It is highly unlikely that the United States will get sufficient support for sanctions to gain agreement to their imposition.
- Even if sanctions are agreed, they will be almost impossible to enforce – Iran has land borders with too many countries, plus coastlines on the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is altogether too porous.
- Enforcing sanctions would almost certainly require patrolling of Iran’s offshore waters, with a high risk of confrontation and military escalation.
- The sanctions regime would cause all kinds of grief for the oil companies that need to do business in Iran in order to supply the West with crude oil.
- Iran demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq war an immense capacity to endure suffering. It is unlikely to buckle under any sort of sanctions regime that the West would be prepared to establish.
- Also, this is a society that is proud of its long history and possessed of great self-respect – the sort of self-respect that led Britain to resolve to fight on in the dark days after Dunkirk; in its own mind there was no alternative, no real question to be addressed. Iran will not buckle under external economic pressure.
- As explained in Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has the option of retaliating by closing the Strait of Hormuz. The United States would have to respond, and the ensuing confrontation would pose a high risk of spiralling out of control.
- Perhaps most important of all, there is a power struggle going on within Iran at the moment, one in which it would be madness to intervene. The people who are taking to the streets in support of Mir Hossain Mousavi are supporting a candidate who wants, inter alia, a more open society, more equal opportunities for women and a better relationship with the outside world. Those who have incarcerated his supporters and put the more senior ones on trial say that they are agents of a foreign power. Who in their right mind would choose this historical moment to intervene and unify the society against a common enemy?
Aside from all of the above, there is the morality of imposing “crippling sanctions” against anyone. As the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime demonstrated, general economic sanctions (as distinct from export controls on particular items of military significance) hit hardest the most vulnerable in society – infants, young children, the ill and the elderly. They do so by reducing access to electricity, clean water, safe food, emergency transport, spare parts for imported equipment upon which life or safety depend. Iran’s very poor air safety record is in part a product of the unavailability of aircraft spares under the existing sanctions. If the proposed “crippling sanctions” are introduced, the scarce available supplies of liquid fuels will be reserved for what the regime considers to be their highest and best use – the uses of the regime itself and of the Iranian military. For everyone else, life will be just that much tougher. In a country of 66 million, a 1% impact on whether any given person will live or die in the next twelve months amounts, across the population as a whole, to 660,000 avoidable deaths per annum. Sanctions are not a peaceful or low-harm way of going to war.