Iran: Did the Sanctions Work?

March 22, 2014

In Blog


Between Convenient Misreading and Mythology: The Iran Sanctions Regime and the Institutionalization of War

Mar 21 2014by Sajjad Safaei
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[Iran's parliament presiding board members, top row, Iranian and foreign leaders and top officials, all back to camera, listen to Iran's national anthem at the start of the ceremony for the new President Hasan Rouhani's swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, Iran on 4 August 2013. Image by Ebrahim Noroozi via Associated Press]
[Iran’s parliament presiding board members, top row, Iranian and foreign leaders and top officials, all back to camera, listen to Iran’s national anthem at the start of the ceremony for the new President Hasan Rouhani’s swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, Iran on 4 August 2013. Image by Ebrahim Noroozi via Associated Press]

After eight years of Ahmadinejad at the helm of government, Iran is experiencing a new trajectory. A number of promising signs in the weeks and months following Hassan Rouhani’s election as president on 14 June 2013 have given rise to a sense of cautious optimism for change and reform in Iran. Such signs include the release of a limited number of political prisoners and the country’s improving relations with the world, leading some to warily suggest we might be witnessing an unfolding of an Iranian Glasnost. The caution is rooted principally in a desire to avoid a repeat of the setbacks Khatami suffered, both on the domestic front as well as on the international stage, after he swept into office in 1997.[1]

In the early hours of Sunday 24 November, the foreign ministers of Iran and six world powers arrived at a deal that would bolster hopes of ushering in a new era in Iran’s relations with the West, especially over its nuclear programme. Iran agreed to allow greater inspection of its nuclear sites, to limit its nuclear enrichment as well as development at the Arak plant. In return, no nuclear sanctions would be imposed on the country and, according to the While House, it would receive about seven billion dollars of sanctions relief.[2]

The brokered deal offered a level of assurance to the parties directly and indirectly concerned with the outcome of the nuclear negotiations, except Israel and Saudi Arabia. Yet a misreading of the sequence of events that led to this historic agreement is gradually morphing into yet another dangerous ideology of empire.[3]

The Iranian government, previously unwilling to compromise on its nuclear programme, was finally coerced into negotiations once the devastating sanctions imposed on the country drove the suffering Iranian populace to elect, on 14 June 2013, a more accommodating president and in turn paved the way for a deal in Geneva in November of that same year.

This narrative found official political expression in the words of US President Barack Obama who claimed in December 2013 that the Western powers had successfully changed “the cost-benefit analysis for Iran”.[4]Spelling out the uncomplicated link between the sanctions and the success of the talks, Obama said:

We put in place an unprecedented regime of sanctions that has crippled Iran’s economy…And it is precisely because of the international sanctions and the coalition that we were able to build internationally that the Iranian people responded by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime.  And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power.

Obama made it clear that the sanctions were imposed “to actually get Iran to the table and resolve the issue.”

Ironically, despite claiming that the language of sanctions and threats had yielded the intended results, this seemingly impenetrable argument suffered a stinging rebuttal by the president’s own admissions just minutes later that “the idea that Iran, given everything we know about their history, would just continue to get more and more nervous about more sanctions and military threats, and ultimately just say, okay, we give in…does not reflect an honest understanding of the Iranian people or the Iranian regime.”

Furthermore, Obama stressed not only that the option of thwarting the entire nuclear programme was “not available”, but that not even the Geneva talks could reassure everyone that this deal would prevent Iran from getting the nuclear bomb. “[W]e have to take seriously the possibility that they are going to try to get a nuclear weapon.”

The president’s remarks should be enough to decisively sever the causal link between the sanctions regime—i.e., the collective punishment of the Iranian electorate—and the success of the nuclear talks—i.e., the Iranian people’s voting into office of a moderate president in favour of talks.

Nevertheless, we shall address the argument that the sanctions led to political change via Iran’s June 2013 presidential elections.

Conveniently Democratic or Democratically Convenient?

Obama claims that the sanctions coerced the Iranian people into choosing a more moderate leader that in turn would favour a moderate approach on the nuclear issue. Yet this theory contains a number of holes.

Embedded in the argument that the sanctions, coupled with military threat, are the main reason for Iran’s current position is another paradoxical and bald assertion: that the Iranian political system actually allows for the representation of the people’s political will and interests. In a sudden but convenient shift of rhetoric, the hawkish champions of sanctions find themselves in the awkward position of vindicating Iran’s political system of fundamental democratic shortcomings.

A closer inspection of the premise that the sanctions are to account for Rouhani’s rise to power and a softening of policy on the nuclear issue further questions the whole narrative altogether:

If (a) the 2009 presidential elections were marred with serious and justified allegations of massive fraud that in turn rendered a political analysis of the results futile and (b) the 2013 presidential election process was reasonably sound[5] and thus worthy of analytical treatment—as is the generally held belief both in and out of Iran—we are then left with two important questions: (1) How did the sanctions and the threat of a military strike ensure the soundness of the electoral process this time around? (2) Why (or how) did sanctions and threats facilitate a Rouhani win?

Firstly, it’s vitally important to understand that neither the sanctions nor the threat of a military strike played a central role in safeguarding the electoral process. But rather, it was the authorities’ haunting by the fear of a repeat of the massive 2009 protests that prevented a tampering with the votes in 2013. In the months leading up to 14 June, Iran’s highest security and military echelons candidly and repeatedly warned about a repeat of the 2009 unrest. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s own series of remarks ahead of election day left little doubt that it was the nightmare of another internal uprising that kept Iran’s ruling elite awake at night and the foreign threat, be it sanctions or military strikes, did little to change the political establishment attitude’s vis-à-vis the 2013 elections.

It is little wonder that while great progress was made on the nuclear issue in the weeks that Ahmadinejad left office, the hardliners in Tehran have yet to show any sign of loosening their grip on the house arrest of opposition leaders—and 2009 reformist presidential candidates—Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Secondly, for the sanctions to help tilt the 2013 election in Rouhani’s favour, they would have had to be thefocal point for his constituency’s demands.

However, upon a brief glance at the thousands of banners and images brandished in his campaign rallies and the slogans chanted by his supporters, one finds it even more difficult to support the claim that the foreign threat was the deciding factor for them. Indeed, to the revulsion and fury of Iran’s hardliners, crowds would repeatedly drown Rouhani’s speeches in their thunderous chants of support for Mousavi and Karroubi.  Images of the two men became regular features of Rouhani rallies as thousands called for the release of all political prisoners. As election day approached, the reformist chants steadily became even more radical.[6]

Knowing full well that he was running against a pool of conservatives, it is inconceivable that Rouhani would limit his election campaign to lambasting the nuclear policies of the Ahmadinejad years, something that his more conservative rivals were also doing quite ably. Setting himself apart from the rest of the candidates meant cashing in on the reformist-opposition votes. Not surprisingly, just days ahead of his election victory, the Fars news agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, suggested that Rouhani might be disqualified from the race due to his ties to the opposition Green Movement.

A fundamental assumption made by proponents of the sanctions is that the suffering they induced amongst the Iranian masses was inescapably translated into frustration at the Iranian ruling elite and subsequently into political action during the 2013 presidential election.

Yet a study conducted immediately after the election revealed that only two percent of Rouhani’s supporters listed the lifting of sanctions as a reason for supporting him.[7] Furthermore, after having conducted one thousand two hundred-five face-to-face interviews inside Iran, the Zogby Research Services found that ninety-six percent of the respondents believed that in pursuing its right to advance its nuclear programme, international pressure was a price worth paying.[8]

Those praising the success of the sanctions also miss, rather expediently, another chronological inconsistency in their logic: the toughest round of sanctions against Iran was imposed in 2012. Yet the disgruntlement with the Ahmadinejad administration long precedes the severe ratcheting up of sanctions. The unprecedented unrest that rocked the country in 2009 occurred long before the most vicious sanctions. In fact, it could even be argued that it was during the municipal elections of December 2006 that the first signs of a growing disillusionment with Ahmadinejad began to emerge as the president’s allies began to see noticeable losses.[9]

This is not to suggest that the nuclear programme and the sanctions regime had absolutely no relevance to the 2013 election race. The issues did draw the attention of the presidential candidates and led to fierce televised debates on the matter.

Yet to tie the dissatisfaction of the Iranian masses, which began years before the sanctions, to the sanctions regime represents a grossly erroneous reading of reality, to say the least.

Rejectionism Disguised As “Accommodation”

In any event, all this focus on the Iranian electoral system as the hardware that facilitated the effectiveness of the sanctions misses the real reason behind the “success” of the sanctions.

If the objective of the sanctions was to get Iran back to the negotiating table, the country had been signalling its interest to engage in talks, without preconditions.[10]

As Peter Jenkins, former UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN asks, “why does Iran [even] need to be coerced into negotiating?” Why must a government whose discontented citizens are inching towards starvation be pushed into talks? Surely the embattled Ahmadinejad, embroiled in a plethora of devastating political and economic crises—not to mention his allegedly fraudulent 2009 re-election—would have been eager to look outwards in the hope of scoring politically points by claiming a diplomatic victory in the nuclear talks. If there was ever an Iranian cabinet eager to compromise on key nuclear demands, surely it was the Ahmadinejad government, which was desperately seeking any shred of legitimacy.

Yet as Jenkins points out, “the real goal of sanctions” was “not to get Iran back to the negotiating table, but to get Iran to give way on the demands [it has declined] to concede.”[11]

So if the sanctions were not really intended to bring Iran to the, by now infamous, negotiating table, what were they designed to do?

Also, if the sanctions were truly intended to bring Iran to the negotiating table, then how are we to account for the mood of doom and gloom in Israel over the Geneva deal, which has for the first time in years placed the Iranian nuclear programme under extraordinary scrutiny? If the sanctions had indeed opened Iran’s nuclear facilities to “unprecedented” (in the words of Obama[12]) inspection, why were the Israelis and Saudis so intent, until the bitter end, on throwing every stumbling block in the book to thwart the nuclear deal?

While many Western proponents of the sanctions regime recited, in mantra-like fashion, the efficacy of the sanctions as the only alternative for bringing the Iranians to the “negotiating table”, few inside Israel had any illusions as to the real goal behind the sanctions.

In April 2012, the Chief of the Israel Defence Forces said he did not believe Iran would in the end develop the bomb, but at the same time insisted that the sanctions on Iran were bearing fruit. But if he believed that Iran did not really “want to go the extra mile”, what could these “fruits” possibly be? As the IDF Chief explained, “The military option is the last chronologically but the first in terms of its credibility.”[13] In other words, a credible sanctions regime is a prerequisite for a military showdown.

Indeed, once we begin to see sanctions as the most basic juridico-economic institution that embodies the desire to wage war, little should surprise us. As former national security advisor Gary Sick observed, the sanctions were “gradually morphing into economic warfare”, a form of “undeclared war”.

In reality, the sanctions were not designed to coerce Iran into negotiations or to prevent war. Like in the case of Iraq, they were the first step in institutionalising an irreversible march towards war.

Therefore the fundamental question is not whether sanctions forced Iran to the table, but rather, what finally triggered the suspension of the Western belief in the sanctions.

None of this is to say that Rouhani’s election made no impact on the fate of nuclear talks. The new Iranian president’s image as a moderate has undoubtedly made it much more difficult to present Iran as a rogue state endangering regional and global security. Furthermore, the Rouhani’s election might have provided a convenient escape route for a number of policy makers in Washington and Brussels who had grown sceptical of the efficacy of sanctions. As Obama himself bluntly noted, “if the perception internationally was that we were not in good faith trying to resolve the issue diplomatically, that, more than anything, would actually begin to fray the edges of the sanctions regime…Furthermore, without this phased approach…Iran would make the case to the world that it was serious about a diplomatic solution and we were not.”[14]

Rouhani’s victory helped bring Iran’s highly fractured political establishment closer together. The Supreme Leader would have found it quite difficult—if not impossible—to bestow legitimacy to the negotiations without the likes of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami on board.

Rouhani’s election in June has also had a marked impact on the composition of Iran’s current negotiating team, who, despite their unwavering belief in Iran’s nuclear rights, are also capable of skilful flexibility if need be. They are also the by-product of an electoral process that was reasonably fairer and sounder than Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election, which grants them a level of legitimacy and confidence that the previous negotiators somewhat lacked.

Nevertheless, the negotiators are for the large part the same individuals who were handling the nuclear dossier prior to 2005 and before sanctions had been put in place. Hossein Mousavian, a spokesperson for the Iranian nuclear negotiation team between 2003 and 2005, confirms that the final agreement reached in Geneva was in fact based on a 2011 Russian proposal and a 2003 Iranian proposal, both previously rejected by Washington.[15] It is easy to forget that in 2003, it was Iran that tried to drag the Bush administration to the negotiating table. At the time, Iran essentially offered to give up support for Palestinian and Israeli militant groups, recognise Israel, open its nuclear facilities to intrusive inspections and cooperation on a whole host of pressing issues. In return, it asked for security guarantees.[16] Iran was “not spinning centrifuges, they were not enriching uranium”[17] and the crushing sanctions had not yet been imposed on the country.

While there is a tendency to misleadingly describe Iran’s current position as a shift from a rejectionist to an accommodationist nuclear policy, the description is more befitting of the position of the United States and its allies, albeit disguised as accommodationism. Iran’s stance, on the other hand, fluctuated between extremely accommodating (e.g., under Khatami) to less accommodating.

Yet neither Iran’s accommodating stance nor its guaranteed rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) finally coerced its counterparts into respecting it as a member of the family of nations, and not its conceptual outside.

Erasing any trace of a doubt that it was the United States, and not Iran, that had been pushed to the negotiating table, Obama told critics of the Geneva deal that “if we did not even try for this next six months to do this…They’d be that much closer to breakout capacity six months from now.” “Without this phased agreement, Iran could start spinning thousands of additional centrifuges”.[18]

Furthermore, despite the serious ideological differences within the Iranian opposition factions, the broad support for the nuclear programme and their unmistakable opposition to interventionism in their country played an important role in dampening the momentum for war. (Even opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, ahead of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, had firmly ruled out the notion that anyone in Iran would ever accept suspension of enrichment.[19]) As Obama himself had to confess, “even the so-called moderates or reformers inside of Iran would not be able to simply say, we will cave and do exactly what the U.S. and the Israelis say.”

In the end, it is worth noting that despite the apparent mood change in both Tehran and Washington, the deal between the Iranians and P5+1 is in an extremely fragile state. As we steadily approach the final hurdles of a more permanent deal and a subsequent shifting of the balance of power in the Middle East, aborting the newfound hope would require an act of sabotage unrivalled in recent years.


[1] The Iranian Glasnost has also been used to describe the Khatami administration’s reformist agenda. See Said Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors (Oxford University Press, 2009), 92; Anna S. Cocks, “Iran’s Glasnost?,” The Art Newspaper,

[2] “Fact Sheet: First Step Understandings Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” White House, 23 November 2013,

[3] For instance, once the Geneva deal was reached, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy insisted that “there can be little doubt that sanctions helped bring the Iranians to the negotiating table, just as they were intended to do…Given the apparent success of such targeted sanctions…it seems likely that they will be the way of the future.” Furthermore, Cassidy draws another “encouraging” lesson from the Geneva talks: “that sanctions are more effective if they are combined with a credible threat of military action … that’s an encouraging development—and one that shouldn’t be forgotten quickly.” Similarly, while acknowledging that the use of economic sanctions in the past century has “by and large … failed,” the Financial Times, attempted to make the case that the “experience with Iran has been different.” Arguing in favour of sanctions against Israel due to its occupation of Palestinian land, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, wrote that “the moral is clear” and “the theory is being proved before our eyes.” He concluded that “The success achieved with Iran must become the world’s road map in how to end the Israeli occupation and the denial of the Palestinians’ rights.”

[4] “FULL TRANSCRIPT: Obama at Saban Forum – Diplomacy and Defense,”, 7 December 2013,

[5] Soundness does not in any way entail that the process was either entirely free or fair. It is self-evident that the role of the election’s hardline supervisory body (the Guardian Council) rendered the process as neither entirely fair nor free, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, unlike the 2009 election results, which were contested by all the defeated candidates, the 2013 election results were not contested by any of the six candidates.

[6] Kadivar Mohammad Ali, “A New Oppositional Politics: The Campaign Participants in Iran’s 2013 Presidential Election,” Jadaliyya, 22 June 2013,

[7] Ebrahim Mohseni, “Iran’s Presidential Election and Its Domestic and International Ramifications,” Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 31 July 2013,

[8] “ZRS Releases September 2013 Iran Poll,” Zogby Research Services, 6 December 2013,

[9] Ray Takeyh, Takeyh: Iranian Middle Class Growing Disillusioned with Ahmadinejad, 19 December 2006,

[10] Gary Sick, “Iran’s Real Weapon of Mass Destruction,” Gary Sick, 2 March 2012,

[11] Peter Jenkins, “The Latest Offer to Iran of Nuclear Talks: Don’t Hold Your Breath,”, 30 January 2012,


[13] “IDF Chief to Haaretz: I Do Not Believe Iran Will Decide to Develop Nuclear Weapons,”, 15 April 2012,

[14] “Fact Sheet: First Step Understandings Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program.”

[15] Majid Sattar, “Berlin, Iran und der Atomstreit Alles eine Frage der Sichtweise,” Frankfurter Allgemeine, 26 November 2013, sec. Politik,

[16] For a more in depth account of the affair, see Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012), chapter one.

[17] Glenn Kessler, “In 2003, U.S. Spurned Iran’s Offer of Dialogue,” The Washington Post, 18 June 2006, sec. World,


[19] “FT Interview: Mir-Hossein Moussavi,” Financial Times, 13 April 2009,