Don't count on sanctions to drive Iran to Donald Trump's bargaining table. Bill Clinton tried that gambit 20 years go. It led to a decade of grief and misery for the Iranian people and set the world even closer to a nuclear-armed Iran.
Without question, there have been cases where sanctions have worked. The almost universally observed sanctions against South Africa eventually played a major role in bringing an end to apartheid and freeing the imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela. Equally, it is likely that the increasingly tough sanctions on North Korea played a role in bringing Kim Jong Un to the summit with Trump, though there is still no evidence that Kim is prepared to dismantle his nuclear program.
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But Iran is a different case -- and history is our guide. And, more importantly, there's already a strong suggestion that history is poised to repeat itself.
The evidence of the failure of sanctions is buried in a large collection of international cables, e-mails and memoranda, which the Washington-based National Security Archives managed to have declassified, at least in part. In the mid-1990s, the warnings were simple and direct: ratchet up sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, and it will be pushed ever more deeply into the arms of its most rabid extremists. Sure enough, Clinton did ratchet them up, and the results were exactly what were predicted.
The warnings were strikingly similar in tone and language to many of those Trump has been hearing today. So, let's examine these warnings and their consequences.
Sanctions have been a part of American relations with Iran from the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, but especially since the time extremists seized the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, beginning in November 1979. Sanctions invoked by President Jimmy Carter had virtually no impact on the hostages' fate. Their release came on the morning Ronald Reagan was sworn in as Carter's successor.
But, in 1995, amid growing fears that Iran had embarked on a full-scale program to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon, Clinton imposed new sanctions, barring all American involvement with Iran's petroleum industry. By 1997, he'd turned the screws even tighter, banning all American trade with the country and recommended other countries to follow suit.
It was here that the cables pick up. "We do not view such pressure as an alternative to dialogue," then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote in January 1996. Indeed, such a viewpoint was clearly held not only by the administration but by America's European allies and Middle Eastern friends as well.
"It would be very dangerous to isolate Iran totally," French President Jacques Chirac told the American ambassador to Paris, which the embassy promptly cabled to Christopher. "Experience proves that the US embargo benefits only the extremists." This was not only the view of the French, who had their own lucrative economic engagements with Iran at the time, but senior officials along the Persian Gulf, who would be far more directly affected. In June 1995, a cable from the American embassy in Abu Dhabi warned Christopher that a UAE official observed, "If Iran were pushed over the brink, the aftermath could prove risks for the entire region," adding that it was "neither necessary nor desirable for the US to take additional measures against Iran."
The fear throughout was that the consequences would be potentially horrific. And so they proved to be as the Clinton sanctions, taken to a new and higher level, were ratcheted up even further under his successor, George W. Bush who froze assets of individuals and businesses identified as aiding and abetting Iranian-sponsored terrorism, including non-Iranian banks doing business there.
Within Iran, the sanctions were beginning to bite, Kenneth Pollack, a scholar at Brookings Institution, describing them as "their greatest nightmare" since 1990.
And the results followed much of the script contained in the warning cables. The president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, elected twice, in 1989 and 1993, was described in his New York Times obituary as "a Machiavellian and often ruthless player in the power struggles among Iran's elite factions, protected by his close association with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader who overthrew the shah in 1979." While considered a centrist, Rafsanjani would eventually head the Assembly of Experts who chose the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran's Supreme Leader -- and determined foe of the United States.
Throughout this period, the sanctions offered little restraint on Iran's progress toward developing a deliverable nuclear weapon -- until the talks in 2015 led to the nuclear treaty putting the brakes on all such Iranian efforts.
Today, with his Iran sanctions efforts, Trump is taking us back to the 90s, with no assurance that sanctions will prove any more effective now than they were under Clinton or Bush. Indeed, if all restraints come off and Iran begins to rebuild its nuclear capabilities, Tehran could still have a bomb in a year, perhaps even a few months by some estimates.
On Monday, Iran's Supreme Leader issued his own warning, saying that Iran would not participate in negotiations in the face of the latest round of US sanctions, though he pledged there would be "no war." Still, it was clear that Khamenei is as fully prepared to stand up to Trump as he was to Clinton, even in the face of sanctions that do appear to be biting into the already strapped Iranian economy. With the Iranian rial plunging 70% in value since May, some major Tehran money exchanges don't even list dollars or euros anymore.
At the same time, there is already the same ascendancy of extremist elements that the Clinton-era cables warned about. "Iran's senior officials are attempting to head off a looming economic crisis -- triggered by the return of US sanctions -- with threats of new rights-abusing policies," Human Rights Watch warned last Friday. They pointed to Tehran's prosecutor Jafari Dolotabadi, who's suggesting that importers who abuse government subsidies could be charged with "corruption on earth," which carries the death penalty. It is a warning not to be taken lightly as the government executed at least 507 individuals last year, according to Human Rights Watch estimates.
The sanctions are also beginning to have an impact on some of Iran's neighbors. When Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, tried to walk a delicate tightrope, opposing the Trump sanctions while reluctantly agreeing to observe them, Iran let it be known that Abadi's planned visit to Tehran would not be welcome.
Still, we have a little breathing room before the next round of even more crippling sanctions kicks in this November. At that time, as Trump tweeted, with some apparent glee, "Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States. I am asking for WORLD PEACE, nothing less!"
But as we can learn from examining the world of 20 years ago, the United States should not trust sanctions to drive Iran to the bargaining table, at least not anytime soon, and they will definitely not produce world peace. After all, it took more than a decade and the united force of six nations—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany, none of whom have bought into the new round of American sanctions, to arrive at the Iran accord that Trump has ditched. Perhaps a will to negotiate can be found on both sides before the next round rolls in.