The Obama administration and other sanctions advocates claim that U.S.-instigated sanctions against the Islamic Republic are meant to achieve a range of objectives (changing Iran’s “nuclear calculus,” getting Iran “back to the negotiating table” and making it “negotiate in good faith,” strengthening the “credibility and leverage” of “pro-engagement camps” inside Iran, preventing military action by the United States and Israel, “political signaling” at home and abroad, and maintaining “unity” within the P5+1).
Responding to this argument, Flynt notes,
“Trita has framed it in terms of the Supreme Leader having a ‘narrative’ about what sanctions say about U.S. intentions toward Iran and that there needs to be some sort of countervailing narrative. In fact, there’s not a countervailing narrative because, in many ways, the Supreme Leader’s narrative about the nuclear issue and about America’s ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic [is] not wrong.
The Supreme Leader has said, just within the last couple of weeks, if the United States wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, it’s very easy: recognize Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment, stop trying to get them to suspend, stop trying to get them to go to zero enrichment and we can have a nuclear deal. But the Obama administration, even though it’s had multiple opportunities to make clear that that’s where it wants to go, refuses to do that. Its stated position is it still wants to get Iran to a full suspension—stop enriching uranium. And as long as that’s the case, there is no countervailing narrative that can be had; the Supreme Leader’s narrative is actually validated.”
Flynt goes on to underscore that “the way the sanctions have been drawn up, and the fact that whereas even just a few years ago, most of them were imposed by executive orders (which are more or less at the discretion of the White House), but now most of the sanctions have been written into law,” belies the proposition that sanctions are somehow intended to promote a diplomatic solution:
“If you actually look at the language in the bills—that these are the conditions Iran would have to meet in order for the President to be able to say ‘we’ve satisfied these conditions and I’m therefore lifting sanctions’—the Islamic Republic could allow the U.S. government to come in, dismantle every centrifuge in Iran, cart them back to [the U.S. nuclear laboratory at] Oak Ridge (like Qadhafi in Libya did), and there would still not be a legal basis for lifting the sanctions. [The Iranians would also] have to stop talking to, dealing with groups like Hizballah and HAMAS, that we want to call terrorist groups, and they basically have to turn themselves into a secular liberal democracy in order to meet our standards on ‘human rights.’ The President can’t lift them, even if the Iranians surrender to him on the nuclear issue. So the idea that this is somehow meant to encourage a diplomatic outcome…that’s just not real.”
With regard to the impact of sanctions, another HuffPost Live panelist—Sune Engel Rasmussen, a Danish journalist who has reported from Tehran—points out that, “in living standards, Iran is not a developing country, and it’s a lot more affluent than many of the neighboring countries…If you were in Tehran for a week, for example, except when you changed your money you might not get a sense of this insane inflation. Because you still have big billboards advertising clothes stores, you still have a lot of cars in the streets, people are still shopping, you still have people drinking three or four dollar cappuccinos in north Tehran. That doesn’t mean the average Iranian is not suffering…But then when you talk about whether that leads to civil unrest, for example, then we also have to remember that many Iranians still remember an eight-year war with Iraq, when they were living on food stamps. So they’ve seen a lot more suffering than they’re seeing now.”
Picking up on Sune’s observations, Flynt elaborates on the impact of sanctions—including their indirect contribution to Iranian economic reform:
“Anyone who has been in Tehran recently, you can talk to people and definitely get a sense of how sanctions are making daily life harder for more and more people. But the idea that the economy is collapsing is just not borne out by on-the-ground reality.
It’s also worth pointing out—and I’ve had any number of Iranians, official and otherwise, say this to me—that sanctions, in some ways, actually help Iran, in that they give the government a kind of political cover to take some steps toward what you might call economic reform, that would be politically difficult otherwise…Iran has done more to expand non-oil exports, it is less dependent on oil revenues for both its government budget and to cover its imports, than any other major oil-exporting country in the Middle East. It has done far more in that kind of diversification than Saudi Arabia or any of the states on the other side of the Persian Gulf…
[Take] the issue of the devaluation of the currency: the Iranian riyal has been overvalued for at least a decade, but no Iranian government has been able or willing actually to let the riyal come back to something like its natural value. Now, because of sanctions, this has happened. And as a result, Iran’s non-oil exports have become much more competitive, and are growing. In percentage terms, they can now cover 50-60 percent of their imports with non-oil exports.”
Finally, on the question of whether sanctions amount to economic war against Iran, Flynt says, “We’re at war, and it’s not just an economic war. We’re engaged in cyber-attacks against high-value Iranian targets, we’re sponsoring covert operations by groups inside Iran that, in any other country in the world, we would call terrorist operations. We are definitely waging war against the Islamic Republic.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett