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Iran Sanctions

September 29, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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Moments after writing my last post, in which I made passing reference to some people’s arguing for war with Iran, I read Daniel Larison’s latest post at The American Conservative, which addresses the issue of Iran hawks. I’ve missed reading Larison. Something went wrong months ago with how my news aggregator — netnewswire — handled his blog Eunomia‘s RSS feed. But since updating to the new netnewswire last week, I’ve had no problems.

Larison is opposed to sanctions against Iran. In his post, he makes the important point that much of the debate on sanctions races past the larger issue of whether we should be trying to punish Iran at all. What he says strikes me as common sense at its best:

One of the reasons why I take such an absolutist position against sanctions is that I object to a policy debate in which the main points of contention concern the means to be used to pursue a fruitless and futile goal. We have seen all of this before with our policies towards Iraq since 1991. Sanctions did not “work” to topple Hussein’s government, and they imposed a terrible cost on Iraqis in the process. Perversely, it was pro-war figures who exploited the inhumane nature of the sanctions regime to justify invasion. After all, they said, you don’t want these terrible sanctions to continue indefinitely. This was one of the bogus “humanitarian” rationales for attacking Iraq. If we continue down the path towards more severe sanctions, thereby conceding that the Iranian government is doing something unacceptable for which they must be punished, we will be hearing the call for military intervention a few years later, and no doubt hawks will claim that they are supporting such action for the sake of the Iranian people whom they will have been happily impoverishing for years.

Sanctions will not “work” to compel Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, but the more important point … is that our Iran policy ought not be concerned with Iran’s nuclear ambitions at all. Cutting off gasoline imports won’t be “successful,” just as a number of other possible sanctions will never gain enough international support to be economically punishing on the regime, but we shouldn’t be trying to find mechanisms with which to coerce Iran into abandoning a nuclear program that two of its close neighbors and several other major powers already have. While it is important to stress that neither sanctions nor military action will change Tehran’s behavior, those are merely pragmatic arguments. They are valid and useful as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. The crucial point that cannot be emphasized too much is that we should not be trying to change Tehran’s behavior, or at least we should be thinking far more creatively about how to relate to Tehran without falling back on using different kinds of coercion.

… Once you buy into the idea that Iran’s nuclear program is “unacceptable” and must be stopped for the good of all, you have already given the hawks everything they need to keep ratcheting up the pressure until the “inevitability” of war has become the consensus view. Why not start instead from the assumption that war with Iran is the unacceptable outcome and change our behavior towards Iran accordingly?

The essential flaw in our Iran policy is that it defines as “unacceptable” something that we cannot prevent by any means available to us. Having set an impossible goal (short of a major land war involving hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Americans), the debate over the efficacy of different forms of coercion is practically useless.

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