A curious thing happened on Tuesday evening on the website of the Washington Post. Around 5pm EST, they published an article quoting a “senior US intelligence official” saying the ultimate goal of Obama’s policy of sanctions on Iran was regime collapse.
This was a major divergence from the administration’s official line of sanctions being aimed at changing Iran’s nuclear program.
Talk of the United States again seeking regime change in the Middle East immediately erupted on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and talk that the United States was repeating similar mistakes from 2003.
A few hours later however, the story was edited. Gone was any mention of the United States seeking regime change and, in its place, a lede towing the Obama administration’s line of sanctions being solely to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
Shortly after this, the headline was altered for a third and final time to, ‘Public ire one goal of Iran sanctions, US official says.’
Laura Rozen, senior foreign affairs reporter for Yahoo! News, stated that the initial change in the article smacked of screaming from either the White House, the intelligence official, or a combination of both. She also ventured that the anonymous “senior US intelligence official” was perhaps CIA director, General David Petraeus, and his demanding that the article be changed does not mean the first version was wrong, just not what they wanted in the press.
If this is the case and the Obama administration is secretly hoping to use sanctions to effect regime change in Iran, then it represents a serious miscalculation on the part of the administration. If the grand strategy of Obama’s Iran policy was the toppling of Iran’s clerical leadership, choosing sanctions as your instrument of choice is terribly naïve.
Ivan Eland, senior fellow at the Independent Institute, wrote recently in National Interest magazine that sanctions “have little or no effect in compelling [a country] to bend to the sanctioning nations’ political will, especially if the goal is ambitious.” It does not get much more ambitious than aiming for regime change.
Indeed, a study of 80 cases where economic sanctions have been used with the goal of regime change or democratization, found that they are successful only 31% of the time. Other studies argue that economic sanctions result in negative consequences such as the target country increasing its political repression in order to smother the political opposition.
Moreover, if Iran were to believe the United States was determined to topple their regime, any program to develop nuclear weapons would undoubtedly be sped up in order to forestall such a result.
In short, using sanctions to achieve regime change is counterproductive and a serious escalation in US-Iranian relations. The United States is still recovering from the last time they effected regime change in Iran, the coup of 1953.
If however, we take the Washington Post’s corrections at face value and the writers did exaggerate the US intelligence official’s statement on regime change, the article still quotes him, and another anonymous administration official, as saying the US hopes to use sanctions to “create hate and discontent at the street level so that the Iranian leaders realize that they need to change their ways.” It is not a great leap from measure to whip up political opposition against the regime, to an ultimate goal of regime change.
Even Iran’s opposition leaders argue such measures would be counter-productive to the healthy evolution of Iranian society.
Such policies are a continuation of events that have seen the Obama administration move from the cautious pursuit of engagement with Iran in 2009 and early 2010, to today’s policy of purely punitive measures.
According to Reza Merashi, Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council, ”[b]eyond the existing policy of sanctions, the administration does not have a policy in place for moving forwards” in its relations with Iran.
William Luers, a State Department official who has taken part in discussions with Iranians, said ”as long as the regime is convinced U.S. policy is at its core ‘regime change’ it will not be receptive to dealing and will be driven in the opposite direction.”
“You can’t kill and talk at the same time,” he added.
The dangers of a “sanctions-only” policy is that by raising the stakes without concomitant efforts at engagement, they are often a back door to war.