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Economic Sanctions Against Iran Are Old Hat—and They Have Never Worked

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman Posted: Jul 03, 2007

Editor’s Note: President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are talking about putting the economic squeeze on Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program. NAM contributing writer William O. Beeman says it won’t work. Beeman is professor and chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. His latest book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (Praeger Publishers).

Increasing economic pressure on Iran is part of the agenda at this weekend’s meeting between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. One aim of these talks is to create a unified strategy of trade and economic sanctions that will eventually pressure Iran into giving up its uranium enrichment program.

The two leaders are wasting their time. This strategy will not work with the Iranians.

European attempts to control Iran’s economy and political life are part of Iran’s historic legacy going back nearly two centuries. Culturally, the Iranian people consider these attempts illegitimate, and have no compunctions about frustrating them—even if it means bending the principles of international law and trade to make sure that these efforts fail.

In the 19th century, Iran was virtually ruled by Russia on the north, and by Great Britain on the south. The Russians controlled customs operations on Iran’s northern borders. They paid nominal fees to the Qajar Dynasty that ruled Iran, and collected customs duties in both directions.

Great Britain by 1820 had secured a General Treaty with the small sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf which turned them into protectorates of the British Empire. Britain’s purpose was nominally to control piracy in the transit route to India. However, from these outposts, the British wrested control of the shipping lanes and the ports from the Iranians.

At the time, the struggle between Great Britain and Russia over Iran was part of the “Great Game” for control of Asia that raged throughout the 19th century. Although Moscow and London saw this as competition, the Iranians saw it as European oppression.

Oil and technology were not the issue at that time. Commodities not grown in Iran at the time, such as tea, became the prime object of increased trade restrictions, but imported manufactured goods from Europe were also part of the mix.

The Iranian response to the economic pressure exerted by these great powers was, first, to play them off against each other. As the Russians increased tariffs in the north, the Iranians imposed their own tariffs on the British in the south to offset them. Late in the 19th century the Qajars began to sell economic concessions to the British or other Europeans to offset the Russian influence, and trade concessions to the Russians to offset Western European influence.

Additionally, the Iranians used transshipment via free ports, notably Dubai as a way to circumvent direct European economic influence. They also tolerated smuggling.

Today the United States has replaced Great Britain in the Iranian mentality, and Russia, having gone through the Soviet period, is once again Russia in Iranian eyes. For the Iranians the European oppression of the 19th century is still alive and well, and must be resisted. The sentiment was expressed once again on June 30 by Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamene’i in a meeting with government officials, who reaffirmed that Iran would continue to take a proactive stance in foreign policy matters, and would not be controlled by European and American policy concerns.

Iran continues to play competing sides against each other today. Its first nuclear power plant, started 30 years ago with American blessings but built with Russian technology, has yet to open. This delay is due largely to obstacles arising from American objections to any Iranian nuclear development. The plant, which cannot practically generate any weapons grade material, promises to be lucrative for the Russians for many years to come, and will set the stage for future Iranian-Russian economic cooperation. President Putin knows that this prospect is in danger if he capitulates to President Bush’s demands for unified sanctions against Iran. Iran, for its part, already has a favorable trade balance with both India and China, and is ready to deal further with them despite American attempts to frustrate these relationships.

At times Iran need do nothing at all to set its rivals against each other. The Bush administration tried to use the notion that Iran posed a danger to the world, and presumably to Russia as a pretext for establishing long-range missiles in the Czech Republic. This was such a stretch that it was immediately denounced by Russian officials, including President Putin. Russian officials know that Iran poses no perceptible danger for them, and no amount of alarmist rhetoric on the part of President Bush could convince them to approve a missile base on their doorstep.

In short, Iran has many time-worn tools in its political arsenal to withstand attempts to control its economy and politics. Its enormously long borders are porous on all sides. The northern border in particular, which Iran shares with former Soviet states Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan—not to mention the vast Caspian Sea—are particularly open. Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west—both with new land routes into Central Asia and China–are uncontrolled by the West. Dubai and other Gulf free ports, as well as newly developed facilities on the Sea of Oman guarantee that needed goods will flow into the country if severe trade sanctions are enacted. Even the present chaos in Iraq guarantees free flow of goods across the Iranian border.

The lesson that the Bush administration refuses to learn is that Iran will not respond to pressure. The only route to Iranian cooperation is face-to-face dealings with no preconditions, where Iran is treated respectfully as an equal partner. This proposition sticks in the craw of the Bush administration—to the point where the irrational call for military action becomes preferable in some quarters.

However, Iran knows that historically when it is able to exercise its strength to resist control by outsiders, it eventually achieves the respect it requires. Until that time, all other strategies aimed at changing its behavior will fail.



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