Foreign Policy Blogs

Iran and the Sanctions Dilemma


Illustration by Sally Thurer

On August 6, 1945, President Truman announced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

He said:

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. Before 1939, it was the accepted belief of scientists that it was theoretically possible to release atomic energy. But no one knew any practical method of doing it. By 1942, however, we knew that the Germans were working feverishly to find a way to add atomic energy to the other engines of war with which they hoped to enslave the world. But they failed. We may be grateful to Providence that the Germans got the V-1’s and V-2’s late and in limited quantities and even more grateful that they did not get the atomic bomb at all. The battle of the laboratories held fateful risks for us as well as the battles of the air, land, and sea, and we have now won the battle of the laboratories as we have won the other battles.

The threats posed by America’s World War II enemies have long subsided, but the use of atomic energy to help end the war in 1945 was arguably a catalyst for contemporary threats to international peace and security. As of January 2013, 437 nuclear power plants, spanning 31 countries, exist. Nine countries possess nuclear weapons and other countries are working ferociously to acquire such weaponry. Although atomic weapons have only been used twice (excluding tests), the fear associated with their capability has been, and continues to be, harnessed. With its controversial rhetoric and actions, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program is a source of heated international debate.

Under President Eisenhower, the Atoms for Peace program supplied information and technological resources to institutions and countries worldwide with the goal of harnessing nuclear capabilities for the benefit of mankind. In March 1957, under the Atoms for Peace program, the United States and Iran announced a “proposed agreement for cooperation in research in the peaceful uses of atomic energy.” Throughout the 1960s, the United States provided nuclear fuel and equipment for Iran to use in its nuclear research. Iran became a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on July 1, 1968 and continued to join international nuclear safeguards with its 1974 signing of the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) Safeguards Agreement. The longstanding friendship between the United States and Iran deteriorated after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and installation of an Islamic government, effectively shattering with the 1979 to 1981 hostage crisis. With the death of the Iranian-American friendship a relationship characterized by sanctions was born.

On December 21, 1979, President Carter announced his seeking international sanctions against Iran in response to the failure of other channels to end the hostage crisis.

He said:

Iran today still stands in arrogant defiance of the world community. It has shown contempt not only for international law but for the entire international structure for securing the peaceful resolution of differences among nations… We have made clear from the very beginning that the United States prefers a peaceful solution, in preference to the other remedies, which are available to us under international law. For a peaceful resolution to be achieved, it is now clear that concrete action must be taken by the international community. Accordingly, I have decided to ask for an early meeting of the United Nations Security Council to impose international economic sanctions upon Iran, under title VII of the United Nations Charter. The Government of Iran must realize that it cannot flaunt with impunity the expressed will and law of the world community.

Carter’s efforts to end the hostage crisis through sanctions charted a new course for America’s relationship with Iran. After more than thirty years of non-existent diplomatic relations, unwavering suspicion, and hostility between the United States and Iran, sanctions continue to be the American government’s primary tool in dealing with Iran. As tensions continue to escalate alongside suspicions of Iran’s nuclear intentions, the international community must consider whether sanctions are an effective catalyst for change.

In March 2013, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) released a report analyzing the past and present impacts of American and international sanctions against Iran. The non-profit organization’s 30-page report, Never Give in and Never Give up: The Impact of Sanctions on Tehran’s Nuclear Calculations, traces the evolution of sanctions, including intended goals and actual effects. Authored by Bijan Khajehpour, Reza Marashi, and Trita Parsi, the document provides interesting perspective on the longstanding debate regarding the effectiveness of sanctions and raises important questions for policymakers and constituents to consider when devising personal and political stances.


The National Iranian American Council (NIAC)

Although not an exhaustive list of sanctions, the subsequent acts and resolutions aim to highlight the prominence of sanctions in dealing with Iran. Beginning with President Carter’s sanctioning the United States’ purchase of Iranian oil (Proclamation 4702), sanctions continued under his successors. President Reagan used sanctions in response to Iran’s support of terrorist activities and aggression toward American ships. His 1987 sanctions continued to target Iran’s oil industry and expanded to include bans on other imports. In response to concerns about Iran’s perceived activities to develop weapons of mass destruction, President George H.W. Bush instated the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992. Under President Clinton’s administration, Executive Order 12957, signed in March 1995, banned American development of petroleum resources in Iran. The following year President Clinton furthered sanctions through the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). ILSA targeted individuals and companies investing more than $20 million a year in Iran’s energy sector. Renamed the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), President George W. Bush renewed and expanded the sanctions. Additionally, the Bush administration was a proponent of new United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions. In 2006, as a result of Iran’s failure to halt uranium enrichment, the UNSC passed Resolution 1737. Under Resolution 1737, “States should prevent the supply, sale or transfer, for the use by or benefit of Iran, of related equipment and technology, if the State determined that such items would contribute to enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy-water related activities, or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.”

Upon assuming office in 2009, President Obama inherited a 30-year policy of American sanctions against Iran. Despite Obama’s articulated desires to open dialogue with Iranian leadership, failed diplomatic endeavors paved the way for increased sanctions. With the Iranian nuclear threat escalating, increased sanctions targeting Iran’s economy including its banks, foreign investment, and oil industry, sent shockwaves through Iran. In the fall of 2012, the Rial, Iran’s currency, plummeted to an all time low, national unemployment neared 20%, and inflation increased by approximately 10%. While Iran’s economy has undoubtedly suffered from sanctions, the National Iranian American Council’s report appropriately highlights Iran’s longstanding economic problems and questions whether the ultimate goals of economic sanctions will force Iran to end its nuclear program.

The report highlights six perceived objectives of and reasons for pursuing sanctions:

  1. Force Iran to end its nuclear program.
  2. Get the Iranian government to engage in good faith international negotiations.
  3. The economic effects of sanctions in Iran increase the credibility of non-militaristic approaches to solving the conflict.
  4. The effects of sanctions may prevent the United States and/or Israel from using military action against Iran.
  5. Sanctions illustrate to American constituents, America’s Middle Eastern allies, and the international community that Iran is being punished for its nuclear pursuits and not adhering to international agreements.
  6. Sanctions are a multilateral, not unilateral, solution.

While sanctions have undoubtedly affected Iran’s economy, they have yet to solve the Iranian nuclear problem. The primary tool employed by the United States and the international community for more than thirty years, sanctions arguably have an unintended side effect of fueling the Iranian government’s desire to protect itself against outside forces. Simultaneously, with average Iranians bearing the brunt of economic turmoil, it is plausible that sanctions fuel Iranians anger toward the international community and not the Iranian government. Despite international attempts to resolve the Iranian issue without military engagement, it is conceivable that sanctions are in fact provoking conflict.

The NIAC report explores Iran’s internal and external responses to sanctions, including how sanctions fuel an anti-Western narrative. In June 2012, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “The only effect that these unilateral sanctions will have on the Iranian people is that they will deepen the hatred and enmity towards the West in the hearts of our people.” According to an Iranian policymaker interviewed by NIAC, “The Iranian people are learning more about the hypocrisy and the true image of the West. I believe that the Iranians are becoming more and more anti-Western and that will have long-term costs for the Western countries in our region.” Instead of bringing the Iranian government, in good faith, to the negotiating table, sanctions are providing Iranian leadership with ammunition to ignite hatred toward the West.

While providing Iranian leadership with short-term momentum to sustain its policies, NIAC also addresses the long-term effects of sanctions. If Iran decides to end its nuclear program tomorrow and all sanctions are revoked, Iran’s economy will not recover overnight. Although Iran’s economy has the potential to recover relatively quickly, with assistance from the international community, Iranian leadership justifies continued Iranian policies by purporting that change in Iranian policies will not result in the end of sanctions. In October 2012, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “They pretend that if the Iranian nation gives up nuclear energy, the sanctions will be lifted. They are lying.” With no guarantee that all sanctions will immediately be revoked and an impossibility to assure immediate economic recovery if and when sanctions are lifted, it is understandable how Iranian leadership can garner support for maintaining official policies despite current economic hardships.

Sanctions achieve results. However, these results may not be what American and international leadership desire. The NIAC report effectively identifies disconnects between the goals of sanctions and their actual effects. Despite its impressive overview and analysis of sanctions and their effects, NIAC’s report does not pose more effective alternatives. With such a cliffhanger, readers may be discouraged, pondering the existence of a better solution.



Allison Kushner

Allison Kushner received three undergraduate degrees from Boston University and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. She has spent time living and traveling throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. A former political speechwriter, Allison has taught college level Political Science and International Relations in the U.S. and China. She continues to be engaged in public speaking activities at home and abroad.

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