Iran sanctions: why hitting ‘ordinary people’ may be the West’s only chance

Iranian protestors stand in a street as garbage is set on fire in central Tehran

After a year and half in which other Middle Eastern regimes have fallen one by one, pro-democracy activists in Iran are no doubt wondering when and if their moment will ever come again. Last week saw what might prove to be a fresh period of unrest, when riot police clashed with merchants in Tehran, who were complaining about the plummeting Iranian currency.

The rial has nosedived from around 10,500 to the dollar a year ago to 37,500 last week, partly because of simple economic mismanagement, but mainly because of EU sanctions announced in January to stop Iran’s suspected nuclear bomb programme. The sanctions imposed a ban on EU countries buying Iranian oil, which badly undermines the Iranian government’s ability to earn foreign currency. Much more than previous rounds of sanctions, these ones are actually having a very tangible impact. Businesses are going bankrupt every day, their owners unable to get credit lines abroad. Iranian families are seeing their assets in banks and property plunge to a fraction of their original value.

What struck me last week, though, was the statement of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, highlighting the fact that the sanctions are hitting ordinary Iranians rather than the political elite. “The sanctions have had significant effects on the general population, including an escalation in inflation, a rise in commodities and energy costs, an increase in the rate of unemployment and a shortage of necessary items, including medicine,” he said in a report.

At the risk of sounding callous, isn’t that the entire point? Diplomats are fond of talking about sanctions only being aimed at hurting a country’s elite. But it has been pretty clear from the experience in Iraq, Burma and elsewhere, that sanctions targeted against named individuals don’t do much beyond stopping them travelling abroad or holding foreign bank accounts.

Saddam Hussein and his family, for example, never stopped living in obscene luxury during a decade of sanctions on Iraq. Nor have sanctions ever much cramped the style of Burma’s golf playing generals, or Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF clan. After all, when you’re part of the ruling clique in a dictatorship, there are always ways to keep yourself comfortable, via racketeering, embezzlement or straightforward theft.

Iran’s leaders are no different in this respect – and in any case, the real hardliners claim to actively welcome hardship, saying a bit of righteous suffering makes for a pious soul. The only way to make them change their behaviour, therefore, is to put the country’s own people in such dire straits that they rise up and challenge the regime. Widespread economic discontent may just do that, mobilising not just the substantial minority of politically active Iranians, but the silent majority as well, this time in far greater numbers than in the failed Green Revolution of 2009.

The EU and the US may not be stating this intention explicitly, but as far as I can see, this must be their calculation. Namely, that the only way to stop Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon now is to foment regime change from within, a plan that happily coincides with the express wishes of a lot of Iranian people.

Many in the West, I think, would see this as a fairly legitimate tactic. If regime change is the price for avoiding a nuclear-tipped Iran, then so be it, even if the Iranian people have to be prodded rather uncomfortably into carrying out their own Persian Spring. What is odd, though, is how the West seems to have failed to get the message across to ordinary Iranians that their current hardship is directly linked to their rulers’ nuclear ambitions.

I have been to Iran four times for The Sunday Telegraph, and on every occasion, I have asked people what they think about the sanctions, and whether they feel the hardship is worth it just to get a nuclear bomb. Very seldom have I got a proper answer.

Most, for a start, simply blame their hardships on the corruption and incompetence of their own government. But if they do mention the sanctions, they usually say the West has imposed them out of general disapproval for Iran’s government, and not, as is actually the case, because of the specific issue of the nuclear program. Hardly anyone draws a connection between cause and effect, which I would have thought the West would be keen to make clear.

A few months ago I raised this during a press briefing at the Foreign Office, asking if they are planning some mass information campaign. Once again, I didn’t really get a proper answer. But should Barack Obama not be making another historic address to the Iranian people, like the one he did in 2009? Should he not be telling them that they are at an historic crossroads – either have a nuclear bomb and a completely ruined economy, or abandon the nuclear programme and look forward to prosperity? Surely, making the Iranian people as aware of the stakes as we are in the West would be a help – Persian Spring or not.


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