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Nefarious Fallouts of Iran Sanctions


This article is based on a talk the author gave at the first-ever expert conference on Iran sanctions to have taken place in Europe. Organized by the Paris Academy of Geopolitics (PAG) at the French Senate on 3 June 2013, the conference assembled legal and economic experts as well as three former European ambassadors to Iran and former UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali. The passages on Iran’s new President Hassan Rohani have been added in retrospect.

The article has been originally published by the New York-based World Policy Institute, and republished by the Moscow-based Oriental Review. A version of this article has been published in its French original on Le Huffington Post (France and Canadian Quebec editions), Mondialisation.ca (Canada) and in the current issue of the PAG journal Géostratégiques. A German translation will appear in the upcoming issue of the Vienna-based international-politics journal International: Die Zeitschrift für internationale Politik.

The article demonstrates that on various grounds (socio-economic, politico-diplomatic, geopolitical and geo-economic) that the sanctions regime against Iran has been counterproductive. Crucially for Western policymakers and contrary to officially stated goals, the rapid escalation of economic sanctions during the past few years has been accompanied by the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. The article concludes by urging the sanctions imposers to prepare the political and institutional grounds for meaningful sanctions relief – a prospect the bulk of Iranians wish for and their new President Hassan Rohani is predestined to deliver if the West reciprocates with goodwill.

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, has promised to ease the tensions surrounding the international relations of his country. In line with the will of the majority of Iranians, the issue of economic sanctions – weighing heavily on the latter’s day-to-day life – will be a key to that end.

In general, the purpose of sanctions is to force a political opponent to do what she would not do otherwise. In the case of the sanctions imposed on Iran – during the course of what is commonly but simplistically referred to as the “nuclear crisis” – the stated goal has been to force a reversal of Tehran’s nuclear calculus toward slowing down or even halting its nuclear program. This goal has clearly not been met. Instead this period has witnessed ever more crippling sanctions – a form of “structural violence” exerted upon an entire country and its people.

On the politico-diplomatic level: Hardening the fronts

Economic sanctions are one of the most preferred instruments of Western foreign policy. The immediate Western reaction to the Syrian crisis is the most recent evidence of this. In the Iranian case, sanctions have been an integral part of the transatlantic strategy pursued against Tehran, code-named “coercive diplomacy” in Diplomatic Studies. There, sanctions are usually presented as a quasi-peaceful means and as such inherently part of a purely diplomatic approach geared towards avoiding a military confrontation. However, as the Iraqi case demonstrates, sanctions are the last step before military action. In other words, “smart sanctions” are likely to be succeeded by “smart bombs.”

Apart from this worst-case scenario, sanctions have not proven to facilitate the resolution of conflicts; on the contrary, they rather tend to harden the opposing fronts. Frequently, opposing sides view sanctions through fundamentally different prisms. In this case, while the West conceives of sanctions in a cost–benefit framework – the heavier the costs imposed on the targeted country by way of sanctions, the more willing the sanctioned state will be to offer concessions. Iran on its part sees them as a means of illegitimate pressure against which she ought to resist. This explains why in the last couple of years the escalation of sanctions was accompanied by that of the nuclear program. For example, in 2006 – before the Iran sanctions were elevated to an undoubtedly crippling dimension by the United States and the European Union – Iran had a thousand centrifuges; the number today is much more than tenfold. This reality of the nuclear dynamics in the wake of sanctions remains largely ignored in Western capitals.

Moreover, it should be stressed that policymakers in the West have so far devoted much more time and energy to identifying which new set of sanctions to impose rather than to committedly and creatively finding a diplomatic solution of the decade-old stalemate.

On the socio-economic level: Widening the power gap between the state and society

The popular rhetoric of sanctions incorrectly characterizes the nature of the socio-economic effects imposed on the target country. Contrary to what is commonly claimed, sanctions actually weaken the lower and middle classes, particularly affecting the most vulnerable in society – workerswomen andthe youth. As a result, the power gap between the state and society widens. All this, as a matter of fact, actually dampens the prospect of popular uprising. A person struggling for economic survival barely has the luxury of engaging as a citoyen in the struggle for democracy. This explains the firm renunciation of sanctions by Iran’s civil society – voices that the West has largely chosen to ignore.

In political-economic terms, sanctions have largely paralyzed Iran’s civilian economy while state and semi-state economic entities – especially those associated with the Revolutionary Guards – have been able to benefit inter alia by monopolizing imports of various goods via “black channels.” State resources have buoyed those companies that have access to them, leaving others to drown in the tide of rising costs. Sanctions have also prompted enormous growth in the volume of bilateral trade between Iran and China (still about $ 40 billion according to the Iran–China Chamber of Commerce and Industries which is closely related to the regime) – to the detriment of producers and jobs in Iran. The reality of sanctions is that they have cemented the politico-economic power configuration in Iran.

On geopolitical and geo-economic levels: Putting a brake on Iran’s development

Sanctions produce far-reaching effects at the geopolitical and geo-economic levels. Corresponding with the implicit geopolitical rationale for sanctions – that if you cannot control or influence a country, you will resort to weakening it – these restrictions have indeed stunted Iran’s  development trajectory. This inflicted damage has not, however, produced the ultimate goal of reversing Iran’s nuclear and regional policies and has in fact damaged Western interests by boosting the clout of countries like China, Russia, and other regional states.

In the wake of the U.S.-pressured withdrawal of the Europeans from the Iranian market, Iran was virtually handed over to China on a silver plate – something Beijing is indeed quite appreciative of. China’s economic presence in Iran can be witnessed all across the board: from the construction of the Tehran Metro to the exploration of Persian Gulf oil and gas fields.

Iran’s technocrats – a prime victim of the sanctions – observe this development with great concern. Among other things, they have seen that a healthy competition between different foreign competitors is sorely missing, and that the lack of high-tech (formerly delivered by the West) has reduced the quality of domestic production. All of this has a negative impact (mid- and long-term) on Iran’s economic and technological development. If the situation remains unchanged, such damage can hardly be compensated. As another case in point, the sale of Iranian oil to large customers such as China or India has turned into barter – a de facto “junk for oil” program has emerged. In addition, during the past couple of years China has been given preferential rates by Iran for its oil imports.

Finally, some of Iran’s neighboring countries also benefit from the sanctions. Most significantly, due to the energy sanctions against Iran, Russia can safeguard its quasi-monopoly on Europe’s energy supply – a strategic interest held by Moscow which is unlikely to be reversed easily. To a much lesser degree but still noteworthy, Turkey – which has turned into the sole land trade corridor reaching Iran from the West – has seen its profits in its dealings with Iran risen sharply. Not surprisingly, its business press has been cheering the Iran sanctions as providing Ankara with a competitive trade advantage. Also off the radar, Qatar which in the Persian Gulf is sharing the world’s largest gas field with Iran, has been able to exploit South Pars much more rapidly than Iran given the latter’s lack of access to advanced technologies. This has resulted in a tremendous gap of revenues between the two countries of many several billion dollars.

Conclusion: Time for Abandoning Coercive Diplomacy

Ultimately, the policy of sanctions is counter-productive on multiple levels, most sensitively on diplomatic and socio-economic grounds. The sanctions – whether called “crippling” or “targeted” – disproportionately affect the civilian population. “Smart sanctions” are very much an oxymoron as “smart bombs” which allegedly function in surgical precision. And like their military counterparts, “targeted sanctions” inflict extensive “collateral damage.”

Despite the political need to seriously reconsider sanctions as a tool for a judicious and solution-oriented foreign policy, there are many political and institutional barriers to overcome before the extremely dense web of Iran sanctions can be dissolved – which remains not only a huge political challenge but also a moral one. The first step in this direction will be the sober realization among policymakers that while sanctions do have effects, these are not the ones officially proclaimed or desired – neither in socio-economic terms nor in the sphere of Realpolitik when it comes to altering Tehran’s nuclear calculation. Leaving the sanctions against Iran in place advances the specter of an Iraqization of Iran – with all its adverse effects internally (destruction of society) as well as externally (war and destabilization of an already too fragile regional balance).

To pave the way for a new chapter in Iran’s relations with the West, Rohani has already proved his wisdom by his choice of foreign minister. Mohammad-Javad Zarif, Iran’s former ambassador to the UN, has already been labeled as “Tehran’s leading connoisseur of the U.S. political elite”. All this undoubtedly presents the most suited prerequisite towards the aim of alleviating the multi-level liability that sanctions constitute. But at the end, it is the responsibility of those who have imposed the sanctions to initiate the process of their removal. The ball is now in the West’s court. It would truly be the “height of irresponsibility” if one missed this opportunity offered by the Iranian people who have already paid dearly for an utterly miscalculated transatlantic “coercive diplomacy.”



Ali Fathollah-Nejad (2013) “Fallouts of Iran Sanctions“, World Policy Journal (online), New York: World Policy Institute, 31 July;

▪ republished on Oriental Review (Moscow), 1 August;

published as “Nefarious Fallouts of Iran Sanctions” on:

Global Research, Montreal: Centre for Research on Globalization, 5 August;

Payvand Iran News, 5 August;

Iranian.com, 5 August;

Fair Observer, 9 August.

Asfar: The Middle Eastern Journal, No. 3 (August 2013).





“a must-read” — Action Coalition Against Sanctions on Iran.

Amerikaanse senatoren eisen zwaardere sancties tegen Iran [Belgium]


7 augustus 2013 (MO*) — De nieuwe Iraanse president Rouhani roept op tot dialoog. Hij wil dat het Westen ‘de taal van sancties’ opgeeft. Hij doet die oproep nadat een groep Amerikaanse senatoren aandringt op nog zwaardere sancties.

Enkele dagen na het goedkeuren van een reeks zwaardere sancties tegen Iran door het Amerikaanse Huis van Afgevaardigden, eisen 75 senatoren in een open brief aan president Obama de sancties nog op te voeren. De nieuw verkozen president van Iran, Hassan Rouhani, roept op tot dialoog en wil dat het Westen ‘de taal van sancties’ opgeeft.

Zwaardere sancties

75 van de 100 Amerikaanse senatoren van beide partijen ondertekenden een open brief aan president Obama, met daarin een oproep de sancties te verstrengen. In de brief spreken de senatoren lof uit over de verkiezing van de meer gematigde Rouhani. Toch vinden ze tegelijk dat Amerika de sancties moet versterken, de geloofwaardigheid van de Amerikaanse militaire dreiging moet verzekeren en een diplomatieke oplossing moet vinden voor het conflict, tot ze een vertraging in Iran’s nucleaire activiteiten zien.

De brief komt slechts een week nadat het Huis van Afgevaardigden met 400 stemmen voor en slechts twintig stemmen tegen een nieuwe reeks sancties tegen Iran goedkeurde. Insiders menen dat de wet zonder veel moeite door de Senaat zal passeren. De Nuclear Iran Prevention Act richt zijn pijlen op de overgebleven mogelijkheden voor Iran om olie – goed voor 88 procent van de Iraanse export – uit te voeren. Ze wil kopers van Iraanse olie zware straffen opleggen. Ook het vermogen van Iran om hun geld op buitenlandse rekeningen te gebruiken wordt nu volledig afgesloten. De Act breidt de sancties ook uit naar Irans auto-, mijnbouw-, bouw- en ingenieursindustrie.

Iraanse toenadering

Sinds de stemming over de Act werd Hassan Rouhani ingezworen als president van Iran. Hij reageerde onmiddellijk op de reeds bestaande sancties en op de voorgestelde sancties. ‘De enige vorm van interactie met Iran, moet dialoog op gelijke voet zijn,’ zegt de Iraanse president, ‘Als u het gewenste antwoord wil, spreek dan niet tot Iran met de taal van sancties, spreek de taal van respect.’

Rouhani won de verkiezing met een gematigd platform, dat vooral focuste op het herstellen van de economie. De Iraanse economie werd zwaar getroffen door de sancties – de economie krimpt al twee jaar, de Iraanse munt is gekelderd en de inflatie ligt officieel op 45 procent. Waarschijnlijk is de echte inflatie dubbel zo hoog. Om de economische malaise te verhelpen, moet Rouhani de sancties dus aanpakken.

Een eerste stap ondernam hij al door Mohammad Javad Zarif aan te wijzen als minister van Buitenlandse Zaken. Zarif genoot een opleiding aan de universiteiten van Denver en San Francisco. Hij was jarenlang VN gezant voor Iran en maakte deel uit van vele vergaderingen met de VS over het kernprogramma van de islamitische republiek. Hij werd eerder omschreven als ‘een man die oprecht de relatie tussen de VS en Iran wil verbeteren’. Het is waarschijnlijk dat hij nu ook een grote rol zal spelen in onderhandelingen met de VS. Ook de rest van het kabinet van Rouhani bestaat voornamelijk uit gematigden en hervormers.

Sancties onder vuur

De sancties liggen al jaren onder vuur. De Iraans-Duitse politicoloog Ali Fathollah-Nejad noemt ze contraproductief. Tijdens een Franse conferentie over de sancties tegen Iran, vergeleek Fathollah-Nejad de sancties met die tegen Irak tijdens de jaren ’90. Daar waren sancties geen onderhandelingsmiddel, maar de laatste stap voor een invasie. Ze veroorzaakten ook heel wat slachtoffers. Een schatting van UNICEF legt het aantal slachtoffers bij kinderen onder de vijf jaar in Irak op 500.000.

Ook de Iraanse sancties treffen vooral de kwetsbaren van de samenleving – vrouwen, kinderen, de arme bevolking. Dit zou de kans op een revolutie verkleinen. ‘Een persoon die z’n best moet doen om de eindjes aan elkaar te kunnen knopen, heeft de luxe niet zich als burger te engageren in de strijd voor democratie,’ aldus Fathollah-Nejad. Overigens zouden de sancties de economische activiteiten van de staatsorganen – zoals de Revolutionaire Garde – niet geschaad, maar gesterkt hebben door het schenken van een monopolie op smokkelwaar.

De sancties hebben de Iraanse economie onttrokken aan het Westen en openden de deur voor Chinese invloed. Voor Iran zelf is dit ook geen goede zaak. Ze kunnen olie exporteren naar China, maar dit gebeurt op ruilbasis – waardoor een soort “junk-for-oil” situatie gevestigd wordt.

Voorstanders van de sancties zien voldoende bewijs van het succes van de sancties in de verkiezing van Rouhani. De Iraanse dissident Saeed Ghasseminejad en de communicatiedirecteur van Verenigd tegen Nucleair Iran, Nathan Carleton, menen dat de sancties een succes zijn en dat Iran zich in de touwen bevindt. Indien er meer sancties komen, zien ze de Iraanse leiding buigen voor de druk. Hun boodschap is dan ook: meer sancties! Deze mening wordt gedeeld door de Amerikaanse senatoren en zij hopen nu dat Obama de druk zal opvoeren.

Hoewel de sancties tijdens de ambtstermijn van Obama opgedreven werden, stuurde Obama eerder aan op dialoog. Dit werd indertijd afgewimpeld door de toenmalige president van Iran Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejads voorganger, Mohammad Khatami, ondernam al eerder een poging een dialoog te starten, maar toen kwam de weigering van de Amerikaanse kant. Toenmalig president Bush verkoos een hardere aanpak. Nu lijken beide landen een president te hebben die tenminste zegt bereid te zijn tot gesprekken.








Willem Roels (2013) “Amerikaanse senatoren eisen zwaardere sancties tegen Iran” [American Senators Demand Tougher Sanctions Against Iran], Mondiaal Nieuws (online) (Brussels), 7 August.



Online article on the Belgian magazine Mondiaal Nieuws mentioning Ali Fathollah-Nejad’s talk on Iran sanctions at the French Senate on the invitation of the Paris Academy of Geopolitics.