The sanctions imposed on Iran are having an effect. Yet economic coercion alone may not cause Iran to capitulate on its nuclear program and thus must be underpinned by a substantive diplomatic engagement. This was the underlying theme throughout an Atlantic Council-sponsored event entitled, “Time to Rethink Policy toward Iran.”
In his opening remarks, Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat characterized the Iran sanctions maintained by the United States and broader international community as the “single most comprehensive” series of sanctions imposed on a state. He cited the dramatic depreciation of the Iranian rial as only one example of the value of the sanctions, and suggested that it was his personal belief that the sanctions could be “enhanced.”
Ambassador Eizenstat also noted that the sanctions regime will serve as a “test” of the efficacy of economic sanctions as a tool of non-military coercion to achieve a political end. In an allusion to a possible military strike, he noted that should economic sanctions fail the consequences may be “extremely grave.”
On the topic of a military strike, Ambassador Eizenstat stated that it was his personal view that in the event that all other avenues are exhausted and still fail to yield a deal with Iran, “Iran needs to know that the military option is not just on the table- but will be taken off and used.” He characterized the standoff with Iran as the “most important foreign policy issue facing the new president on day one.”
Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, also acknowledged the impact economic sanctions are having on Iran, but noted that mutual misperceptions in Washington D.C. and Tehran are informing the actors’ appraisal of the situation.
Vaez noted that whereas Washington believes that the sanctions are working and it is only a matter of time when Iran capitulates, Tehran believes that the longer it resists the more the U.S. will grow fatigued with the sanctions, thus increasing Iran’s leverage in any potential negotiations.
Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, also explored the misperceptions between Iran and the United States. As she described, the recent protests in Tehran are evidence to the U.S. of the utility of economic sanctions, yet the Iranian government interprets these same events as proof of a broader U.S. policy to overthrow the regime.
Thus, in light of these mutual misperceptions, a sustained dialogue must be undertaken with Iran to augment the very real effect of economic sanctions. Ali Vaez suggested that a change to the “format and substance” of negations may be prudent, citing the need for more frequent, sustained lower-level engagements. Suzanne Maloney also suggested that Iran was amenable to a deal over its nuclear program, but did not want to be seen as acquiescing to international pressure.
Ultimately, all of the speakers agreed that the current sanctions regime is having a tangible impact on the Iranian economy and, as the recent protests suggest, is beginning to permeate Iranian society. Still, economic sanctions may only achieve limited gains and thus must be coupled with a substantive diplomatic engagement with Iran if a long-term solution to the current standoff is to be achieved.