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Long Live the Tyrant! The Myth of Benign Sanctions


Sacrosanct sanctions: A chimeric construction 

They aim to bring recalcitrant tyrants to their senses, to put an end to their external as well as internal malefaction. With surgical precision, they pull the noose ever closer around the tyrant’s neck, so that in hopeless despair he is compelled to behave reasonably in foreign affairs while, enfeebled, he lifts his bloodied hands from the throat of the oppressed people. It is a morally justified decapitation of evil, the salutary removal of a swelling tumor.

Undoubtedly, in this description sanctions are an extremely attractive option to do twice as well at a single stroke: The culprit is hunted down, right up to the tyrannicide, and the maltreated people are freed and released on to the path of democracy.

When it comes to the issue of Iran, debates revolve around a dual axis of war or peace, of dictatorship or democracy. Sanctions, it is implicitly assumed, are akin to peace and democracy. At a minimum, it is said, they constitute a necessary evil in order to put the tyrant in chains, and prevent him from completely unleashing his brutality, both externally and internally.

This is how the motivation for and the functioning of sanctions are portrayed within the dominant discourse. In short, sanctions are civilization’s magic cure against barbarity. Viewed in this light, they fascinate political circles in the West and even parts of the Iranian diaspora. And not seldom, even the most enlightened intellectuals of the Western world are spellbound by the rosy rhetoric of their political leaders, leading many of them to content themselves with simply calling for a targeted and therefore effective application of sanctions to kill the tyrant and free the people.

Thus lifted onto this sacrosanct level, the rejection of sanctions is branded as complicity with the tyrant – a refusal to “tame” him.

Forming a central part of the debate surrounding Iran, the Western public is afforded the dubious luxury of relying on rhetoric rather than reality when assessing sanctions. In the face of that fantastic image of sanctions, a serious discussion about their extent and impact is flagrantly missing. However, if one takes the trouble to take a look behind the glittery façade of the righteous global policeman whose noble aim is to bring the evildoer down on his knees by way of sanctions, the sheer negative image of this very picture cuts the surface.

The imposers’ mindset

“Unprecedented sanctions” against Iran are imposed, it echoes with an unmistakable sense of pride from the capital cities of the Western world. After all, the self-appointed “leaders of the free world” all have acquired a rather dubious specialization in designing and implementing a plethora of various kinds of economic sanctions, deployed to discipline the unruly tyrants of the Global South.

The automatic recourse to sanctions by Western policy-makers (most recently at the start of the Syrian crisis) is not only an expression of their perplexity and their delusional belief that you can meet a complex problem with a supposedly universal magic cure. Such desperate activism à la “Let’s do something” also unites these policy-makers with some Iranians, yet none of them contemplating the consequences of their sanctions policy or advocacy. At the same time, there is a moral superiority on display: After all, sanctions would represent an almost peace-loving antithesis to the crude use of force, they are at the least a means to avert war – but in any case they aim, in a targeted and intelligent fashion, at the Achilles’ heel of the tyrant.

Also, some policy-makers want us to believe that the never-ending tightening of sanctions reflected their paternal patience with which the democracies dealt with the evil opponent, in their noble aim to prevent the mad mullahs rushing to the bomb. These same politicians have all along displayed the apodictic certainty that Iranians would ultimately blame their own government for their economic malaise – in the improbable case this would not happen, the sanctions policy ought to be better “explained” to the Iranians, they insist. What does such a belief structure reveal about our appreciation of Iranians’ cognitive capability to adequately direct the blame for their increasingly desolate economic situation to either the pillages of a kleptocratic regime or the sanctions of the Western imposers?[1]

Crippling economic coercion

The Western-led sanctions regime against Iran, with its now virtually all-out financial and trade embargo, has since its qualitative leap in the course of the so-called nuclear crisis of the past decade, always been by its very design not aimed at a tyrannicide of any kind. On the contrary, as one of its main proponents has stated, “[Iran] must know that the West will work tirelessly to make Iran poor […]”.[2] These sanctions, routinely called “targeted” but now self-assuredly called “crippling”, have long been rather crippling than targeted when it came to their impact upon the Iranian economy. In this respect, the country’s unparalleled isolation from the international financial system has constituted the eye of storm, which wreaked havoc in even the most indubitable civilian sectors of Iran’s economy. The financial exclusion is precisely the reason why purely non-military items, most dramatically a great deal of life-saving medicine, cannot be purchased any longer. And, by the way, mind you that we can witness a stark case of “double-punishment”, namely when it comes to the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Iranian victims of Saddam’s chemical warfare of the 1980s who are now deprived of vital medicine due to the sanctions imposed by the very same countries who were back then the providers of those chemical weapons. Imagine, for a second, how each of them and their families might feel in the current situation.

The neutral-sounding technocratic term “sanctions” veils its true significance as a means of economic coercion.[3] Does it likewise concern us in the slightest that international law can hardly be reconciled with the economic strangulation of an entire nation?[4] In an age in which illegal wars of aggression, politically and morally disguised as “humanitarian interventions”, or likewise illegal drone attacks camouflaged as intelligent and clean police operations, have almost become the business of the day for Western democracies, warfare by economic means falls under the radar of public awareness. And when noticed sanctions are even thought of as a benign gesture in comparison to the military prowess that can be unleashed upon a country and the people inhabiting it.

The Trojan Horse carrying the “magic box”

But how come that for too long a time many have accepted the deployment of this economic weapon of mass destruction? What further rhetorical tools are used to justify the imposition of crippling sanctions?

To maintain the moral high-ground, at each and every round of ever-tightening sanctions Western leaders hasten to highlight that the measures adopted are not aimed at the people of Iran who, they never fail to add, deserve a better life than under the present regime. This implies that Iranians in turn somehow deserve the Western sanctions being proffered to them by a caring Uncle Sam to alleviate their misery and desperation, and to revitalize their hopes and aspirations. Many, including some Iranians themselves, have long bought into the rhetoric of the sanctions’ imposers that the economic measures will boost the people’s standing against a handicapped tyrant.

Asked what the sanctions entail, both representatives from the imposing countries and the proponents of sanctions promptly provide us with a glance into the “magic box” that is deployed in the fight against tyranny: the notorious human-rights violators, the tyrant’s accomplices, have been identified and placed on an ever-expanding blacklist that prohibits them from travelling abroad and from accessing their international bank accounts; means of repression and control used by the tyrant against dissent are not sold to him anymore (at least not officially by the West). Finally, to paralyze the tyrant’s external aggression, the provision of so-called dual-use items, i.e. items that also have a military purpose, are banned.

Rarely, someone will ask about the real utility and efficacy of such measures in alleviating the repression dissident Iranians are exposed to: What is the use of prohibiting someone to travel beyond the region who nearly never does so? Has the tyrant been so naïve as not to recognize that he can purchase the same instruments of repression from a panoply of willful sellers on a globalized market? Do we care that the vast majority of items banned under the “dual-use” rubric are in fact used for civilian purposes? As in the cases of the “dual-use” items prohibited from getting into Iraq yesterday and into Gaza today, they constitute the most basic goods needed by various sectors of the civilian economy.

If the usefulness of such measures is next to negligible, so is there no point whatsoever to this “magic box”? While all the above-mentioned restrictions may be morally justified, the key point is that its contents reflect only a very tiny percentage of the entire sanctions package that overwhelmingly has nothing to do with those measures enlisted and proudly enunciated.

However, because of the severity of the situation that has come about as a result of these sanctions, for over a year this Trojan Horse argument can no longer be sold with the ease that it used to be. The reason is that Iranians inside and outside the country have themselves felt the scourge of the sanctions on their everyday life, and begun to comprehend that the measures are by no means targeted but indeed crippling.

Nevertheless, respected figures such as the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi (whose tireless commitment for human rights needs to be commended) and some Western-based human-rights organizations (such as Justice For Iran whose executive director is human-rights lawyer Shadi Sadr) keep on feeding the Trojan Horse argument by incessantly calling for “intelligent” and “targeted sanctions against the regime”, thus demanding the senseless and utterly useless growth of that “magic box”. After all, is there any evidence to suggest that such demands have in any way benefited the cause of freedom and democracy in Iran? Or, rather, have they provided a cover of legitimacy for the continuation of the sanctions policy in its entirety? Hardly acknowledged by proponents of “smart sanctions” who succumb to the adventurous illusion of having a say in the design and implementation of sanctions is the larger institutional and political structures in which the latter occurs.[5] After all, in the “sanctions industry” – which includes shady figures from liberal “humanitarian imperialists” to pro-bellum neoconservatives – the potential suffering by Iran’s civil society hardly plays a role.[6] For those cheerleaders of “smart sanctions” both this larger picture as well as the domestic social, economic and political fallouts of sanctions is widely ignored in their analytical and political work. Therefore, one must bitterly admit, some freedom fighters have assumed the role of useful stooges for the economic strangulation of Iranians.

But how may Iranians themselves feel about the “free world’s” noble gesture of emphatical goodwill? Did the honorable cavalry of sanctions ever contemplated how it was for those people “who deserved a better life than under the present regime” to actually live in a country that is under a severe sanctions regime? What it felt like, when the cost of rent and basic food stuffs are constantly on the rise; when the country’s currency has lost half of its value; when the specter of unemployment is boundlessly rising due to an economy virtually cut off from the ever so vital international trade; when international banking transactions, be it for personal or commercial purposes, if possible at all, can only be made at much higher fees via an increasingly limited number of third countries; when every boarding of an aircraft resembles a gamble with your life due to the lack of spare parts; when food supplies from abroad cannot unload their cargo because of lack of insurance; and when the stock of life-saving medication and equipment is rapidly depleting, with the specter of a humanitarian crisis clearly emerging on the horizon. This is only a piece of the gigantic dimensions of their “targeted sanctions against the regime”. Similar reports from Iran are reaching us at an accelerated rate, day by day; they are accompanied by voices of desperation, people for whom in a repressive system the air to breathe becomes even thinner by way of sanctions.

The people as hostage: Economic sanctions and democratization

The sanctions narrative is predicated upon the idea that there is a positive relationship between sanctions and democratization, for the tyrant is tamed and the people empowered.

Furthermore, there is a silent but nevertheless clearly heard hope that seems to unite Western politicians and some exiled Iranians alike: The economic hardship thanks to the sanctions would direct the people’s anger towards the regime and ultimately bring it down in an act of extreme popular resentment. After all, there can be no freedom without sacrifice, echoes the loud heckling from parts of the Iranian diaspora from Los Angeles to London. The price is high but the time has come to pay it, Ramin also invokes on Facebook. Almost spitting, Sara replies, “We are paying the price for our freedom: In case you’ve missed it, the Evin prison is overcrowded!” Seen from the comfortable SUV in California, this concept which exhibits a misanthropic dimension hailing the principle “The greater the suffering, the greater the hope!” may have a certain charm. However, the underlying assumption is that it is acceptable to collectively punish Iranian society for the sake of a greater good – however ill-defined the latter may be.

On the ground, however, there is a connection whose logic we would never dare to doubt within the Western hemisphere: a sustainable and socially just democratic change is dependent not only on the energies of the middle class, but also on the intervention of working people and the poor. It is precisely this middle class, the workers, and the poor that are sanctioned to death in Iran. To put it differently, a person struggling for economic survival barely has the luxury of engaging as a citoyen in the struggle for democracy.

Young Iranians, who form the bulk of the population, suffer most extremely at the hands of economic sanctions.[7] These are the same people whom the West otherwise has chosen as torchbearers of a future democracy in Iran. Instead of assuming such a role, these same people are subjected to collective punishment.

Iran sanctions – A prime showpiece: Widening the power gap between state and society

Taking into consideration the academic findings about the impact of sanctions, the Iranian case can potentially qualify as a prime showpiece: authoritarian regimes driven into a corner usually increase their repression against all kinds of opposition and are also able to shift the costs of sanctions onto the population, as a result of which they can prolong their rule.[8] The sanctions-imposing governments can hardly be unaware that entities connected to the ruling system, such as the Revolutionary Guards’ economic empire, profit from the sanctions. With legal trade virtually illegalized, the civilian economic sectors across the board are damned to head-shakingly observe how black-channel operations run by powerful circles of corruption and nepotism flourish. Hence, as a precise negative image of the above narrative, the regime can even extend its power vis-à-vis civil society as a result of sanctions.[9]

Aware of such fatal consequences, civil-society representatives from inside Iran have consistently opposed sanctions. The West, which is always boasting of its support for the cause of democracy in Iran, has simply preferred to ignore these voices.

Sanctions halting centrifuges: A political fairy-tale

The pronouncement by the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the occasion of another round of sanctions reflects the prior concern of the West’s political class: “The point is that we cannot accept that Iran rushes towards the nuclear bomb.” Hardly anyone, however, recalls that since the massive tightening of sanctions in 2006, the number of centrifuges spinning in Iran has more than decupled (by mid-2012), before again doubling (by the end of 2013). In other words, in total inversion of Western political expectations, the escalation of the sanctions was accompanied by an escalation of the nuclear program.[10] It is a fair assumption that in fact the nuclear program has much to do with a sense of uncertainty, for after all the country, literally besieged by enemy troops, was ever since threatened with war in the wake of its revolution – a perception that can hardly be extinguished by way of sanctions.[11]

In addition, sanctions aim to force concessions from Iran. Rather than adopting the Western cost–benefit calculation, that is, giving in when the costs of sanctions become unbearable, Iran’s leaders react with defiance and proclaim their will to “resist” as long as it would take.[12] Sanctions also feed the regime’s propaganda machinery about the malicious West who aims at subjugating the Iranian people.

A very common claim about the success of the sanctions policy gains currency every single time the Western media reports that Iran has agreed to “return” to the negotiating table. Only as result of the ever-tightening sanctions regime, it is suggested, the stubborn Iranians have agreed to engage in negotiations. However, the truth is that Iran has shown more willingness to talk to the other side than vice versa – remember the Bush/Cheney administration’s refusal to talk to so-called “rogue states” precisely at a time when Tehran proved to be key in establishing a post-Taliban order after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan? Now, with the Hassan Rohani administration the same Iranian foreign-policy school of thought has resurfaced, which is likewise committed to constructive engagement with the West primarily out of strategic conviction and not the sanctions’ weight.[13]

The almost forgotten Iraqi tragedy – or: A favorite tool of Western policy

It appears as if there has never been the Iraqi tragedy – indeed a historical chapter of utter disgrace for Western civilization. First of all, this does not refer to the criminal invasion and occupation of the country in 2003. It was throughout the 1990s that this erstwhile cradle of civilization was already barbarically destroyed. The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and pushed for by Washington and London, were soon thereafter condemned as genocidal by one UN humanitarian coordinator (Denis Halliday) to the next (Hans von Sponeck). Nothing less than the social fabric of Iraq was shattered; food supply, the health and education systems all collapsed, as did the infrastructure.[14] While women and children – the most fragile members of society – suffered the most,[15] the tyrant remained firmly in his seat. It was a “different kind of war” waged against Iraq, as Von Sponeck later chronicled in his book.[16]

Even then, it was said that sanctions would intelligently target the Iraqi leadership while sparing the population; even then, it was about the “credibility” of Western policy facing a danger of utmost proportions. “Sanctions will be there until the end of time, or as long as Saddam lasts”, then U.S. President Bill Clinton explained in November 1997. Confronted with the fact that the sanctions had killed half a million Iraqi children, his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded with the legendary statement: “I think it’s a very hard choice, but we think that the price is worth it.” The macabre logic to sacrifice countless lives on the altar of Realpolitik finds a certain resonance today, when Western politicians can hardly hide their joy about ever-stricter sanctions on Iran. Having this in mind, the famous Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji apocalyptically asked: “How many children under five years will have to die in Iran, which has three times as many inhabitants as Iraq?”[17]

Conclusion: Crippling sanctions as an act of barbarism

The fact that the concept of “targeted” or “smart” sanctions, which is an inextricable feature of the dominant political discourse, has been adopted unaltered and uncritically by the public discourse in general and many intellectuals in particular is a testimony of our complacency, our unwavering belief in the benign nature of any actions taken by the democratic West. It seems as if we prefer a convenient lie to an inconvenient truth. This self-deception is in fact a necessary act, if we seek to keep wagging the moralizing finger, both domestically and internationally.

Most importantly, what does this tell us about our moral constitution, if we are ready to sacrifice entire societies for our purported Realpolitik interests? Thus, in the righteous fight against tyranny, we hide our very own barbarity. For our sanctions are a brutal assault on an entire country and its more than century-old struggle for democracy and self-determination, whose survival has now become dependent on the drip of our incessant and crippling sanctions regime. Tumor-like the sanctions have infected all areas of Iranian life, acting like a slow poison injected into society.

In a move of Orwellian proportions, the dominant discourse has unhesitatingly turned sanctions into an act of peace. If we unmask that our sanctions discourse is infested by double standards and hypocrisy, the naked truth will be that we are waging an economic war against the people of Iran; that the sanctions are indeed targeted, but rather at the civilian population; and that the sanctions constitute a form of structural violence directed at Iran’s social fabric.

Therefore, two prospects are currently to be feared , if the election of the centrist Hassan Rohani as Iran’s new president will not be seized by the West to bring about détente and the removal of sanctions: either a suffering populace has to battle for sheer survival within a securitized system that will not cease to be cemented through the external threat of force and sanctions alike; or, in the wake of an officially proclaimed policy failure of “targeted sanctions”, the call for “targeted bombs” comes along swiftly, and needless to say, war will bury any prospect for democracy and decent life for decades to come.

So in the end, the entire image of the sanctions as civilization’s magic wand is nothing but an insidious illusion, the sanctions package merely a poisonous mix wrapped in gift paper, the story of a neat and clean tyrannicide nothing but a PR-spun fairy tale. The Iranian experience of the double burden was not long ago expressed by the famous dissident cartoonist Mana Neyestani on the occasion of the imposition of severe unilateral sanctions by the European Union. In that caricature, the EU’s leather shoe steps on the military boots of the regime underneath of which lies the democracy activist crushed into the ground. While the regime only reacts with a meager “ouch”, the now doubly crushed democracy activist yells in direction to the EU: “To hell with your support!”

All in all, the West has put together a narrative with which both itself and the Iranian regime can live; but the people of Iran cannot. We should pose ourselves two honest questions: Does not everybody enjoy the same human and social rights regardless of the political system they live in? And: If sanctions keep tyrants alive, what would happen if they were removed in toto?

[1] See e.g. Younis, Mohamed (2013) “Iranians Feel Bite of Sanctions, Blame U.S., Not Own Leaders,” Gallup, 7 February.

[2] Ottolenghi, Emanuele (2010) “Setting the Sanctions Agenda,” The Journal of International Security Affairs, Washington, DC: The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, No. 18 (Spring), pp. 19–30, here p. 26.

[3] See e.g. Carter, Barry E. (2008) “Economic Coercion,” in: Wolfrum, Rüdiger (ed.) Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, Oxford University Press, last update by September 2009; online version available via www.mpepil.com.

[4] “No State may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights or to secure from it advantages of any kind.” UN General Assembly, Resolution 2131 (XX), 21 December 1965, para. 2. The resolution was decided without any vote against and with only one abstention. See also Carter, op. cit., Section 7. For a discussion, see Fathollah-Nejad, Ali (2012) “Der internationale Konflikt um Iran und das Völkerrecht: Versuch einer Gesamtdarstellung” [The International Iran Conflict and International Law: Towards a Complete Overview], in: Crome, Erhard (ed.) Die UNO und das Völkerrecht in den internationalen Beziehungen der Gegenwart [The UN and International Law in Contemporary International Relations], Potsdam (Germany): WeltTrends (Potsdamer Textbücher, No. 18), pp. 137–206, here pp. 187–196.

[5] See e.g. Fayazmanesh, Sasan (2003) “The Politics of U.S. Economic Sanctions on Iran,” Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Summer), pp. 221–240.

[6] See Fathollah-Nejad, Ali (2010) “Collateral Damage of Iran Sanctions,” The ColdType Reader, No. 46 (May), pp. 56–57.

[7] Salehi-Isfahani, Djavad (2010) “Iran’s Youth, The Unintended Victims of Sanctions,” Dubai Initiative – Policy Brief, Cambridge, MA: The Dubai Initiative, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

[8] For a good introduction, see Parsi, Trita & Bahrami, Natasha (2012) “Blunt Instrument: Sanctions Don’t Promote Democratic Change,” Boston Review (online), 6 February. See also Fathollah-Nejad, Ali (2013) Nefarious Fallouts of Iran Sanctions: Time for Abandoning Coercive Diplomacy, Asfar: The Middle Eastern Journal (UK), No. 3 (August).

[9] See Fathollah-Nejad, Ali (2013) “Iran’s Civil Society Grappling with a Triangular Dynamic,” in: Aarts, Paul & Cavatorta, Francesco (eds.) Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts, Boulder, CO & London: Lynne Rienner, pp. 39–68, esp. pp. 52–62 (“Economic Sanctions and State–Society Relations”).

[10] Khajehpour, Bijan & Marashi, Reza & Parsi, Trita (2013) »Never Give In and Never Give Up«: The Impact of Sanctions on Tehran’s Nuclear Calculations, Washington, DC: National Iranian American Council (NIAC), March, pp. 26–28.

[11] See Parsi, Trita (2012) “How Obama Should Talk to Iran,” Washington Post, 14 January.

[12] See International Crisis Group (2013) Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions, Brussels: International Crisis Group (Middle East Report, No. 138, February); Khajehpour & Marashi & Parsi (2013) op. cit.

[13] See e.g. “Rohanis Agenda: Was will der neue iranische Präsident?” [Rohani’s Agenda: What Does the New Iranian President Want?], Ali Fathollah-Nejad interviewed by Regine Naeckel, Hintergrund: Das Nachrichtenmagazin (Germany), No. 4/2013 (Fall 2013), pp. 52–55.

[14] See Gordon, Joy (2010) Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[15] On women, see Al-Ali, Nadje (2003) “Women, Gender Relations, and Sanctions in Iraq,” in: Inati, Shams C. (ed) Iraq: Its History, People and Politics, Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

[16] Von Sponeck, Hans-Christof (2006) A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq, New York: Berghahn Books.

[17] Ganji, Akbar (2011) “Mojâzât-e régime yâ mojâzât-e mardom-e Irân?!” [Penalties for the Regime or the People of Iran?!], Rooz online, 8 December.

[18] See e.g. “The Deal with Iran, and What Comes Next,” Al-Monitor, 24 November 2013.



Ali Fathollah-Nejad (2014) “Long Live the Tyrant! The Myth of Benign Sanctions – plus Epilogue on the Geneva Agreement with Iran”, in: Konrad Adenauer Foundation [KAS] (ed.) Iran-Reader 2014, compiled by Oliver Ernst, Sankt Augustin & Berlin (Germany): KAS, pp. 81–96.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad (2013) “Long Live the Tyrant! The Myth of Benign Sanctions“, New Politics (New York), Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer), pp. 17–24.



The text is a slightly updated version of the same essay that appeared in New Politics (New York), Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer 2013). A shorter version of this article (that has initially been drafted in late 2011) has been published in the leading intellectual outlet of the German-speaking world, in the “Feuilleton” pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 3 January 2013. It was published in an Arabic translation on Jadaliyya (Washington, DC & Beirut: Arab Studies Institute) on 15 February 2013.

A version of the epilogue was first published as “The Geneva Accords and the Return of the »Defensive Realists«,” LobeLog (U.S. foreign affairs blog of the international news wire service Inter Press Service), 5 December 2013. A German version was published as “Das Genfer Abkommen mit Iran: Eine Folge der Sanktionspolitik?” [The Geneva Agreement with Iran: A Result of the Sanctions Policy?], inamo: Berichte und Analysen zu Politik und Gesellschaft des Nahen und Mittleren Ostens, Berlin: Informationsprojekt Naher und Mittlerer Osten (inamo), Vol. 19, No. 76 (Winter), p. 3.



Oliver Ernst (2014) “Iranisches Exil und Reformbewegung im Iran: Divergenzen und gemeinsame Transformationsperspektiven“, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (APuZ), Vol. 64, No. 42/2014 (13 October), Bonn (Germany): The Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, bpb), pp. 36-41.

UN-Mächte und Iran gehen aufeinander zu: Gespräche über Atomprogramm [Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung]


Osnabrück. Mit vorsichtigem Optimismus blickt die Weltgemeinschaft nach Genf, wo an diesem Dienstag und Mittwoch der Iran und die fünf UN-Vetomächte sowie Deutschland über das iranische Atomprogramm sprechen.

Dabei geht es nicht nur um den Atomkonflikt an sich. Es werden auch die Weichen dafür gestellt, in welche Richtung sich das Verhältnis zwischen Iran und westlicher Welt entwickelt.

Zuletzt hat sich eine Annäherung angedeutet. Hassan Ruhani, seit zwei Monaten iranischer Präsident, schlägt versöhnliche Töne an, will seinen eigenen Worten zufolge den Konflikt so schnell wie möglich lösen. Er und US-Präsident Barack Obama telefonierten kürzlich sogar miteinander – ein fast revolutionärer Schritt, bedenkt man, wie sehr die Erzfeinde jeglichen Kontakt meiden. „Die Zeit der Konfrontation unter Präsident Mahmud Ahmadinedschad ist vorbei“, sagt Oliver Ernst, Iran-Experte bei der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Der Wissenschaftler erkennt in der politischen Elite in Teheran einen Stimmungsumbruch.

Doch es wird sich zeigen, ob die von beiden Seiten signalisierte Gesprächsbereitschaft ausreicht, die tiefen Gräben zu überwinden. Der Westen verdächtigt den Iran, unter dem Deckmantel seines zivilen Atomprogramms am Bau einer Bombe zu arbeiten. Der Iran weist dies zurück und beharrt auf seinem Recht, Atomenergie nutzen zu dürfen.

Argwöhnisch schaut die Weltgemeinschaft auf die Weigerung des Irans, uneingeschränkt mit der Internationalen Atomenergiebehörde (IAEA) zusammenzuarbeiten und deren Kontrolleuren Zugang zu den Atomanlagen zu gewähren. Teheran wiederum lehnt die Forderung des Westens ab, komplett auf Urananreicherungen zu verzichten. Tatsächlich hat das Land laut Atomwaffensperrvertrag das Recht, Atomkraft für zivile Zwecke zu nutzen und Brennstoff für seine Reaktoren herzustellen.

Keine der Seiten hat bisher eindeutige Beweise vorgebracht: Weder hat der Iran überzeugend klargestellt, dass er das Uran nur friedlich einsetzen will, noch der Westen, dass Teheran an einer Bombe bastelt.

„Der Westen spricht immer wieder vom Prinzip ,Zuckerbrot und Peitsche‘“, sagt der Iran-Experte Ernst. „Die Peitsche spüren die Iraner durch die Sanktionen seit Jahren enorm, vom Zuckerbrot hingegen wenig.“ Auch für Ali Fathollah-Nejad von der School of Oriental and African Studies in London sind die Sanktionen der zentralste Punkt: „Sie ernsthaft zu lockern, würde ein wichtiges Signal auch an die iranische Bevölkerung senden.“ Gleichzeitig sei es unumgänglich, dass die Weltgemeinschaft das Recht des Irans auf ein ziviles Atomprogramm anerkenne.

Der Weg zu einer Aussöhnung ist noch lang, zumal „der Atomkonflikt nur ein Symptom des iranisch-westlichen Konflikts ist“, wie Fathollah-Nejad betont. Der Syrien-Krieg, die unsichere Lage im Irak, die Spannungen zwischen dem Iran und Israel – die Liste der Kontroversen zwischen Teheran und vor allem den USA ist seit Jahren lang.

Vor allem herrscht ein stetes Misstrauen gegenüber der anderen Seite, das nur durch kleine Schritte und Vertrauensbeweise überwunden werden kann. Bisher waren versuchte Annäherungen gescheitert. Etwa 2003, als der damalige Reformpräsident Mohammed Chatami ein umfangreiches Angebot zu Verhandlungen über das Atomprogramm machte – und zurückgewiesen wurde. Drei Jahre später schlug der Iran einen US-Vorstoß zu direkten Gesprächen aus.

Nun sitzen in Washington Obama und in Teheran Ruhani mögliche Männer des Ausgleichs im Chefsessel. Die Bedingungen scheinen gut, dass es dieses Mal vorwärts geht – in kleinen Schritten.


Franziska Kückmann (2013) “UN[-Mächte] und Iran gehen aufeinander zu: Gespräche in Genf über umstrittenes Atomprogramm – Stimmungsumbruch?“, Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, 15. Oktober, S. 4. [pdf]

Der Umgang mit Kriegstraumata zwischen Märtyrerverehrung und Ästhetisierung des Schreckens


25 Jahre nach dem Ende des 1. Golfkrieges, der von 1980 bis 1988 zwischen Iran und Irak tobte, ist der Krieg im Iran noch allgegenwärtig und beschäftigt auch die junge Generation im Iran, die selbst kaum noch persönliche Erinnerungen an diesen Konflikt hat, der zu den längsten und blutigsten Auseinandersetzungen des 20. Jahrhunderts zählt.

Die im ersten Kriegsjahr in Teheran geborene deutsch-iranische Künstlerin Nina Ansari hat sich in ihrer fotografischen Arbeit mit diesem Ereignis befasst. In einem völlig dunklem Raum positionierte sie Personen, nur durch kleine Löcher drang Licht ein. Gespenstische Szenen sind so entstanden, die an Bunkeraufenthalte erinnern. Ohnmacht und Schutzlosigkeit des Menschen angesichts von Verdunkelung und Bombenangriffen werden anschaulich gemacht. Doch am Ende liefert die Künstlerin auch eine hoffnungsvolle Perspektive: Das Licht der unzähligen Löcher, die wie Einschusslöcher wirken, kann ihrer Darstellung nach auch das Licht der Sterne sein. Ihre Fotoreihe „War, Bedeutungsträger Krieg“ wurde in verschiedenen Städten in Afrika und Europa gezeigt. In ihrer iranischen Heimat war dies nicht möglich. Die Zensur ließ dies nicht zu, da auf den Bildern auch unverhüllte Haut zu sehen ist. Selbst der Druck einzelner Bilder war im Iran deswegen im Iran unmöglich.

Die Sprache des iranischen Films

Doch welche Bilder sind im Iran erlaubt? Mit dieser Frage befasste sich Jaleh Lackner-Gohari, die die metaphernreiche Sprache des iranischen Films vorstellte. Unter Chomeini hatte sich die iranische Filmindustrie vom Vorbild Hollywood abgewandt. Die von Lackner-Gohari vorgestellten Regisseure Mohsen Makhmalbaf und Abbas Kiarostami machten in den folgenden Jahrzehnten den neuen iranischen Film weltweit berühmt. Die metaphernreiche Bildsprache auch der Kriegsfilme, die schon in der Kriegszeit entstanden, knüpfte dabei an die iranische Kultur der Märtyrerverehrung an, die die gesellschaftliche Auseinandersetzung mit dem Tod für eine „gerechte“ Sache über Jahrhunderte geprägt hat. Das Martyrium des Siavash und die Verehrung Imam Husseins nannte Lackner-Gohari hier beispielhaft. Metaphern haben dabei traditionell eine doppelte Funktion – sie sind künstlerisches Stilmittel, das sich dem Betrachter einprägt – wie der Grantatapfelsaft, der der das Blut der Gefallenen symbolisiert – und zugleich Schutz des Künstlers vor Zensur und Despotismus, indem er durch die künstlerische Verfremdung der Wirklichkeit eine Form der Herrschaftskritik realisieren konnte, ohne um sein Leben und Auskommen fürchten zu müssen.

Um den Märtyrertod in der iranischen Propaganda ging es dem Politikwissenschaftler Babak Khalatbari in seinem Vortrag, in dem er die großen Märtyrer-Wandbilder in iranischen Städten vorstellte. Durch den Rückgriff auf schiitische Vorstellungen vom Opfertod gelang es der Führung der noch jungen Islamischen Republik, den schahtreuen Militärapparat zu ersetzen. Bassidsch-Milizen und Revolutionsgarden entstanden unter den Bedingungen des Krieges, der von Chomeini daher als „Glücksfall“ für das Regime bezeichnet worden war. Diese neuen militärischen Kräfte mussten in den sehr verlustreichen Schlachten gegen die Truppen Saddam Husseins antreten. Khalatbari erinnerte an die unzähligen Kinder und Jugendlichen, die auf die Minenfelder geschickt wurden. Allein für die Rückeroberung der Stadt Korramshahr mussten 100.000 Iraner sterben.

So unvergleichlich der 1. Golfkrieg und der 1. Weltkrieg auch waren – dem Historiker Armin Triebel gelang es in seinem Vortrag dennoch, einige Gemeinsamkeiten herauszuarbeiten. Die Schaffung von Feindbildern und die Sakralisierung von Werten nannte er dabei beispielhaft. So wie Kaiser Wilhelm II „keine Parteien mehr“ kannte, sondern „nur noch Deutsche“, so erkannte auch Chomeini, dass er den äußeren Feind Saddam brauchte, um die tiefe Spaltung in der iranischen Gesellschaft nach der Islamischen Revolution überwinden zu können.

“Die ästhetische Faszination des Krieges”

Der Literaturwissenschaftler Mirko Wittwar konzentrierte sich in seinen Ausführungen auf die „ästhetische Faszination des Krieges“, die bereits bei den alten Griechen auf den Vasenmalereien zu finden war. Für den Ersten Weltkrieg steht Ernst Jünger als einer der wichtigsten Vertreter einer ästhetisierten Auseinandersetzung mit den Schrecken des Krieges. Jünger beschrieb laut Wittwar „Krieg als ästhetisches Erlebnis“ und vermittelte in seinem Werk die einfache Gleichung „Ästhetik ist gut – Krieg ist ästhetisch – also ist Krieg gut“. Wesentlich differenzierter ging dagegen Lothar Günther Buchheim mit dem Gegensatz von Ästhetik und der entsetzlichen kriegerischen Zerstörung um. Seine Werke „Das Boot“ und „Die Festung“ sind frei von der kriegsverherrlichenden Ästhetisierung Jüngers. Buchheim habe zwar überall in der Wirklichkeit Ästhetik gesehen, auch in der entsetzlichsten Zerstörung, aber er habe dies so interpretiert, dass Ästhetik „ewig und stärker als der Krieg“ sei. Für Buchheim war dies die „Krücke, um den Krieg zu überleben.“

Die unterschiedlichen kulturellen, religiösen und historischen Traditionen haben in der iranischen und in den westlichen Gesellschaften sehr unterschiedliche Formen der Auseinandersetzung mit kriegerischen Ereignissen hervorgebracht. Doch für die aktuellen Herausforderungen müssen diese Unterschiede überwunden werden, wie im weiteren Verlauf der Diskussion deutlich wurde.

Am Beispiel der amerikanisch-iranischen Beziehungen verdeutlichte der Politikwissenschaftler Fariborz Saremi, wie äußere und innere Herausforderungen einen pragmatischen Kurswechsel auf beiden Seiten sinnvoll erscheinen lassen. Auch der religiöse Führer Chamenei sehe heute ein, so Saremi, dass Iran mehr Sicherheit und eine positive wirtschaftliche Entwicklung nur durch eine iranisch-amerikanische Annäherung erreichen könne. Der im Juni 2013 neu gewählte Präsident Rohani sei entschlossen, Iran aus der internationalen Isolation heraus zu führen und dadurch die wirtschaftliche Krise, die durch die Sanktionen bedingt sei, zu überwinden. Dabei werde er aber von Teilen des Regimes, wie den Revolutionsgarden, die ihm misstrauten, kritisch beobachtet. Auch Obama werde in Washington nicht durchweg bei seinem Annäherungskurs an den Iran unterstützt. Saremi sieht die Notwendigkeit, dass die USA und Iran die fragile Lage in der Region gemeinsam stabilisieren müssten. Trotz der „sehr unterschiedlichen Perspektiven“ – beispielsweise in der Syrienkrise – müssten sie gemeinsame Interessen finden, um kooperieren zu können. Das Interesse der USA an den großen Öl- und Gasreserven in der Region einerseits, und das iranische Interesse an einer Überwindung der Sanktionen andererseits, beschrieb Saremi als wirtschaftliche Basis einer solchen Annäherung.

Auch der Politikwissenschaftler Ali Fathollah-Nejad befasste sich in seinem Vortrag mit der nicht-militärischen Überwindung des aktuellen internationalen Konflikts über das iranische Nuklearprogramm. Dem „Mythos von den gutwilligen Sanktionen“, die als „friedliches Mittel der Konfliktlösung“ gelten, setzte er die Interpretation entgegen, dass sich die – laut Obama „umfangreichsten Sanktionen in der Geschichte“ zu einem „ökonomischen Kriegsmittel“ entwickelt hätten. Diese „crippling sanctions“ lähmten Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im Iran. Während der Staat aufgrund seiner Ressourcen noch gut zu Recht käme, würden ausgerechnet die Teile der Bevölkerung durch die negativen Auswirkungen der Sanktionen in Mitleidenschaft gezogen, auf denen die Hoffnungen des Westens ruhten: Arbeiter, Studenten, Frauen litten unter den Sanktionen, die medizinische Versorgung sei eingeschränkt. Die Iraner sähen die Sanktionen daher als illegitimes Druckmittel. Namentlich in der Frauenbewegung würde offene Kritik hieran geäußert. Fathollah-Nejad warnte davor, dass durch einen Krieg die radikalen Kräfte noch gestärkt und die gesellschaftlichen Räume weiter eingeschränkt würden und appellierte, dass nicht die Fehler von 2003 wiederholt werden sollten, als eine Annäherung in der Frage des iranischen Nuklearprogramms scheiterte.



Oliver Ernst (2013) “Der Umgang mit Kriegstraumata zwischen Märtyrerverehrung und Ästhetisierung des Schreckens: 4. Hafis-Dialog in Weimar“, Berlin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 11. Oktober.

[Bericht zum 4. Hafis-Dialog Weimar am 10. Oktober 2013.]



This is a report (in German) by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation on the 4th Hafez Dialogue in Weimar (Germany), where Ali Fathollah-Nejad joined the panel discussion on “War and Peace”.