Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

Topic Debate: Sanctions on Iran

Background: In late June, the U.S. enacted its most recent sanctions against Iran in coordination with an oil embargo by the European Union. These were the latest in a lengthy list of sanctions implemented by the U.S. on Iran since the very first was passed by the Carter Administration during the 1979 Hostage Crisis. Both the Reagan and Clinton administrations continued to implement additional measures. Amid intelligence reports that Iran had begun development of a nuclear weapons program, President G.W. Bush advanced negotiations with Iran and issued several executive orders that expanded previous economic sanctions. These included freezing assets and financial transfers to restrict trade to Iran.

As Iran continued to develop its uranium enrichment program against United Nations’ stipulations, President Obama ramped up another round of sanctions through a series of policies starting in 2010, including the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA), which expanded sanctions to address people and businesses working with Iran’s petroleum sector. All in all, the U.S.’s measures aimed at stopping or stalling Iran’s nuclear program encompass sanctions on weapons development, trade and investment, nuclear materials, financial dealings, assets, and refined gasoline.

In conjunction with U.S. sanctions, other countries have recently increased pressure on Iran as well. While the international group known as the P5+1 (consisting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) seems unable to forge a diplomatic solution and compromise with Iran, the European Union imposed an oil embargo on Iran in early July, which were described by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “the strongest measures yet.” Compounding this international effort, Saudi Arabia has taken actions to lower oil prices to, among other global reasons, pressure Iran with regard to its nuclear ambitions as well as its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Undoubtedly, these multi-pronged and expansive measures, along with years of economic mismanagement, are taking their toll on the Iranian economy. Nonetheless, Iran is not backing down from its nuclear objectives and tensions are rising as the country increases its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, carries out missile tests, and issues “hawkish statements.” Likewise, in addition to the Fifth Fleet, the U.S. is building up its presence in the Gulf with undersea drones, patrol craft, and an assault ship.

Debate: Given the current status of diplomatic negotiations and escalating tension between the U.S. and Iran, the following articles look at the discourse on the effectiveness of economic sanctions:

  • Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues in Foreign Policy that, “To end Iran’s nuclear program, it’s time for America to step up its economic warfare.”
  • Meghan O’Sullivan, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, proposes that “the economic barometer may not be the best predictor of whether Iran’s leaders are going to make a strategic shift.” Writing in the Boston Herald, she argues that sanctions should be part of a larger U.S. strategy with Iran and lists four insightful variables that could also indicate and inform a way forward in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Julian Borger, editor of The Guardian’s Global Security Blog, analyzes a recent glimmer of possibility for diplomatic solutions given Iran’s tacit, albeit tenuous, willingness to compromise and, with cautious optimism, outlines such a scenario.
  • Hadi Kahalzadeh and John Schiemann, of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, take the view that because Iran does not neatly fit within the “rational actor model,” the leaders of the Islamic Republic are willing to pay the economic price for ideological and security concerns: “The ramping up of sanctions again Iran won’t work.”
  • According to Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the sanctions might work; not necessarily because they will force Iran to the negotiating table or to change their nuclear objectives but rather “to keep [the sanctions] in place as a containment shell while the Iranian economy slowly implodes.”
  • Michael Eisenstadt, Director of the Military and Security Studies Program atThe Washington Institutefor Near East Policy makes a case for intensifying intelligence operations and using certain military capability in order to bolster diplomatic and economic efforts and avoid a full-blown military confrontation.

What do you think about the sanctions on Iran? Are they effective? Are there better alternatives?


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