Protests in Tehran: Will Pain of Sanctions Change Iran’s Nuclear Calculus?

Blame sanctions, says Ahmadinejad, of Iran's economic chaos. Blame Ahmadinejad, say the protesters — and supporters of the Supreme Leader

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Iranian riot police stand next to a garbage container which is set on fire by protesters in central Tehran, near the main bazaar, on Oct. 3, 2012

The teargas that wafted over parts of Tehran on Wednesday might have been taken as the smell of victory for gung-ho advocates of the U.S. sanctions strategy against Iran — had any been there to catch a whiff. The gas was fired by riot police to disperse crowds gathered for a rare demonstration against the regime, driven to act by the precipitous collapse in the value of their currency, the rial, and against the authorities’ efforts to prevent them from converting savings into foreign currencies in order to preserve their value. The rial has fallen 40% against the dollar in the past week alone, after three years of steady decline, accelerated by the rush to convert savings. For many in the West, the turmoil was interpreted as a sign that sanctions are having their desired effect. “From our perspective, this speaks to the unrelenting and increasingly successful international pressure that we are all bringing to bear on the Iranian economy,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Monday, referring to the chaos in Iran’s currency markets. Sanctions, she said, are “cutting deeper and deeper into the Iranian economy and this is an important factor in trying to change the [nuclear] calculus of the Iranian leadership.”

For Iran’s citizens, who have seen the prices of many basic foodstuffs more than double since last year, and who are struggling to access even life-saving medicines, the effect of the sanctions is more than mere “collateral damage.” The sanctions are, as U.S. officials like to point out, designed to put Iran’s economy in a “chokehold”, in the hope that one of the effects will be that the resultant economic pain rouses them to defy and challenge the regime, forcing it to rethink its nuclear program in order to win Iran’s release from the stranglehold of sanctions that are fomenting rebellion. While official statements might insist that innocent Iranians are not the target of that “chokehold,” an unnamed senior U.S. intelligence officer showed no such squeamishness when explaining the sanctions strategy to the Washington Post earlier this year. “In addition to the direct pressure sanctions exert on the regime’s ability to finance its priorities,” the official said, “another option here is that they will create hate and discontent at the street level so that the Iranian leaders realize that they need to change their ways.”

(MORE: U.S. Sanctions Take a Toll on Iran’s Currency)

Advocates of that line of thinking may have seen Wednesday’s protests as vindication — but it may not be that simple. While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad eagerly concurs that it is Western sanctions that are behind the economic chaos in Iran, his political opponents — loyalists of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei — actually blame Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy for the precipitous currency collapse. That sentiment appears to have been shared by many on the streets in the series of small demonstrations around Tehran on Wednesday: Most of the protesters’ rage appears to have been directed at Ahmadinejad, who was accused of failing to take measures necessary to protect Iranian living standards. After all, the Iranian economy isn’t exactly on the verge of collapse, and the regime is believed to have a foreign currency reserve of some $100 billion. Indeed, the fact that it is still sending billions in aid to prop up the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad — another sore point with protesters on Wednesday — underscores the fact that is not exactly bankrupt, yet.

So, even if sanctions are fueling the economic pain that is prompting Iranians to return to streets in protest, the expectation that such demonstrations will prompt Iran’s leaders to surrender a nuclear program that has been among their long-term priorities requires a considerable leap of faith. “It would be optimistic at best to hope that the deteriorating economic circumstances will spur Iran’s leaders to shift their nuclear stance,” said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last month. “They do not seem to know or care much about the country’s economic situation — their own income has been hurt only a little, if at all, and they appear unconcerned about the prospect of popular unrest given their past success at repressing opposition. For now, they are likely to stay the course on both domestic economic policy and the nuclear issue.”

Indeed, backing down is barely an option, says University of Hawaii Iran specialist and National Iranian American Council board member Dr. Farideh Farhi. “It’s politically impossible for the leadership in Tehran to back down from their insistence that Iran can’t accept being treated differently from any other country on the nuclear issue.” (That’s a reference to Iran’s insistence that the Non-Proliferation Treaty gives it the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.) More flexibility in Western offers, if it was forthcoming, could create space for Iran’s leadership to make compromise in order to win sanctions relief, says Farhi. “But those thinking that today’s demonstrations are the start of a wave of protest that would change Tehran’s nuclear position have forgotten that Iran’s leadership has repeatedly shown a willingness to unleash repression to prevent such a scenario.”

(MORE: Exit Ahmadinejad: Iranian President Leaves World Stage with a Whimper)

The fact that the protesters are targeting Ahmadinejad may actually suit the regime in Tehran, which is effectively headed by Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad is reviled by the conservative clerical establishment, and has repeatedly had his wings clipped by the executive branch. The president, moreover, is a lame duck, with his second and final term of office due to end next summer.  Ahmadinejad, whose faction was trounced in recent parliamentary elections by supporters of Khamenei, will in his twilight months in office make the perfect whipping boy for a regime facing popular protest as a result of economic pain. After all, it’s widely believed in Iran that economic mismanagement by Ahmadinejad’s government has actually significantly exacerbated the impact of sanctions.

Khamenei believes the goal the U.S. and its allies is regime change, not nuclear deterrence. Sanctions that threaten the living standard of ordinary people in many way play into a regime-backed narrative of Iran being under economic attack by hostile foreign forces. Does this make it more or less likely to heed Western demands? The history of sanction suggests that regimes very rarely buckle under external economic pressure, even as their citizens pay a terrible price.

In Western capitals, sanctions have been sold as the only alternative to the war Israel has been threatening to start. But, warns, Farhi, “if the Iranians don’t give in — and they’ve put themselves in a position where  they can’t give in — sanctions in fact become a pathway to war.” U.S. intelligence has long maintained that Iran is not currently building a nuclear weapon, although it is accumulating the means to do so. If Tehran concludes that the impact of sanctions threatens the regime’s survival, that could just as easily make the case for nuclear retreat as it could burnish the appeal of a nuclear deterrent.

MORE: One Nation Under Sanctions

29 comments
elixelx
elixelx

Well done. Well done indeed!

Finally, FINALLY, someone is asking the pertinent question: Will the Iranian people suffer willingly in order to further the nuclear ambitions of the country's leaders?

If they are, then how MUCH pain and suffering will be necessary for them to cry NO MORE"?

If Nazi Germany may be taken as an example, they will take ANY AMOUNT of pain before they abandon their national pride, their god-given rights, their defensive posture--all those justifications for a lethal nuclear programme--to follow the nuclear path  and their millenarian leadership even unto hell!

Sanctions WILL NOT WORK with this crew; sooner or later we will have to listen to the siren-song that John McCain sang in 2008 and "bombbombbomb, bomb Iran" and actually act upon it!

ahorvath
ahorvath

No.  Sanctions will hurt the Iranian economy and the average Iranian, but they will not stop the nuclear program.  Furthermore, Israel is not capable of stopping Iran and the Obama administration will not stop Iran.  Iran will have a nuclear weapon in about 6-9 months and 5-10 bombs in about 18-24 months.  Once that happens, the whole equation in the middle east will change for the worse.  Expect a nuclear confrontation in the region in about 2 years.

elixelx
elixelx

UNLESS we bombbombbomb bombbomb Iran!

Really? We cannot stop Iran before this mortal danger is a reality?

I think one well-placed nuke, or a shock and awe bombing campaign will CERTAINLY slow down and postpone the event horizon from coming nearer.

We bomb, they postpone, they restart, we bomb, they postpone, they restart, we bomb...get the idea?!

Or we could take 'em out in one fell swoop...!

Which one would you support?...there seem to be NO OTHER ALTERNATIVES to your doomsday scenario

Poliphobic
Poliphobic

Don't think they'd need any help,since you ask.

Poliphobic
Poliphobic

Support locking you up

elixelx
elixelx

Who's gonna do that? You and the Iranian Army?

LeighLee
LeighLee

When  I began  cultural tours to Iran in 2007, real levis,nikes,L''oreal cosmetics and boxes of foodstuffs from America-such as  Dole Bananas, were available in the bazaars and stores. On my last trip in Nov.2011, all our American brands were still there-made in China. All we have accomplished is turn what was once the most pro-American civil society ,possibly in the world toward support of their regieme, and lost an enormous trading partner to the tune of billions that are now bought or bartered with India and China. Yes, the sanctions hurt and yes, they are our fault..and No they will only raise the development of nuclear power.irancustomtravel.com

CaptainAmerica72
CaptainAmerica72

Your whole comment is wrong.   Real Levis, nikes?  Our brands...neither of those have been made in the USA for 20 years....Dole? the bananas that are grown in Nicaragua...

Then you said "All we have accomplished is turn what was once the most pro-American civil society, possibly in the world". 

Seriously, are you Iranian?   I really think you are posting this from an Iranian government computer.

Iran has not been somewhat friendly to the US since the 70's.  You say you've been to Iran?  If you have then what do you think when you see the two story tall American flags painted upside down on the sides of several buildings, in major cities visible from their highways with English type with comments painted next to them that say "Down with America"?  What do you think, "they love us..?  The sanctions are OUR FAULT?  NO, they are Irans fault, and greatly deserved and need to be increased, greatly.  How could you think such a bad comment could be believed,  really sad 

CaptainAmerica72
CaptainAmerica72

Will this slow Irans nuclear ambition?

 No. It is an economic issue due in part to the sanctions. The two issues could not be further apart.

The thing we need to hope for is the protest continues, becomes an uprising and Iran beings the downward spiral like Syria.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

If they were going to cave to sanctions, they would have done so a long time ago.

Their status in the Middle East is directly tied to ignoring sanctions and plowing ahead.

The other Middle Eastern countries would greatly prefer the Israelis to not be the only onse with Nukes. (Although a lot of them fear an Iran with them nearly as much).

No pretense, this is about the bomb, enriched uranium for medical purposes would have been traded on the first round of sanctions.

As a matter of prestige and power Iran can't give in and it's all about power.

HutuKing
HutuKing

state department celebrating wreaking havoc in the iranian economy and destroying peoples livelihoods. sanctions cost the lives of 1 million iraqi children and they are willing to do the same in iran.

elixelx
elixelx

Hutu, maybe you shoul ask the Tutsis if they were preyed upon by yourtribe!

CaptainAmerica72
CaptainAmerica72

 NO NO NO.  The US sanctions did not kill one Iraqi woman, child or man.  The sanctions were structured and allowed plenty of food, medicine and goods into Iraq.  Saddam sold these goods right off the ship and the Iraqis never saw any of it. Why, because Saddam used the money on building new palaces, weapons and supporting his own support system. You know it, but can never admit it....   

1dodnov90
1dodnov90

These sanctions usually don't do nothing but  exacerbate the domestic situation in the country that are affected by them and radicalize the people, that normally, as the situation get harsher and harhser,  start to look for other solutions to get out of it and the extremits can  take avantage of it..and then there are plenty of surprised american columnists asking theirself for the reason why this people hate USA..why don't they try to ask for it to the parents of thousands of children that died in Iraq after the first gulf war due to the dramatic  sanctions pushed by the USA...

CaptainAmerica72
CaptainAmerica72

 So you do not think the Iranians were radical before the sanctions? 

So you do not think the country is and has been controlled by extremist for the past 50 years?   

You think its ok that Iran supports terrorist organizations that are responsible for killing muslim woman and children, wants nuclear weapons, kills its own people for nothing more than ridiculous excuses. Iran has been supplying the insurgents in Irac with weapons to kill Americans for ten years. Oh, and they are using them daily to kill Iraqis also.  The Iraqis would be fine right now if it were not for Iran supplying the bombs that kill them.  All overlooked by you for an opportunity to criticize the USA.    

Talendria
Talendria

It sounds like we've effectively destroyed the middle class in Iran.  Hardworking people can't afford basic necessities, and their retirement savings are being devalued.  The middle class is the key to socioeconomic stability in any country, and instability--particularly in that region of the world--is bad.  In other words, I think this ham-fisted approach is likely to do more harm than good.  The only reason they're wasting national resources on a nuclear program is that their pride has been trampled for 60 years.  If we learned anything from post-WWI Germany, it's that desperation makes people do terrible things.  

CaptainAmerica72
CaptainAmerica72

 REALLY!  Ok, they want a nuke because their pride has been trampled.? Sounds like the same bs excuse that the terrorist use. You know the one they use, they hate the US because of its policies...lol  

What policies, how has their pride been trampled?  So tired of empty excuses for terrorist actions. State some facts of trampled pride please.....

Talendria
Talendria

Iran was the epicenter of the Persian Empire which conquered Egypt and liberated the Jews from the Babylonian Empire. They built an advanced civilization at a time when most of Europe was living around a campfire. I was hoping someone from that region would provide a more detailed answer to your question, because the only thing we Americans remember of Iran is the hostage crisis of 1979 and I don't want to spend all day googling historical trivia. The point is, they were once a great and proud people, and they've since fallen on hard times, partially due to international disregard for their sovereignty. Clearly that is no justification for terrorism, because there is no justification for terrorism, but I think we need to start engaging them as equals. It may be easier when Ahmadinejad is gone, because that guy comes off like a nutjob.

CaptainAmerica72
CaptainAmerica72

 Well, you said "we" destroyed their middle class. I disagree considering hardworking people can't afford basic necessities right here in America. Its the global economy along with the Iranian dollar dropping. I asked for an example of how we trampled their pride. You wrote you were hoping someone from that region would answer. So you can not give just one example? Then why did you say it? 

There was a Persian empire, there was a Roman empire. Both fell, not Americas fault.  There was also a Mongolian empire, I do not see Mongolians blowing women and children to bits because of lost pride..... I hate to keep going but no, the hostage crisis if not the only thing I remember. Iran supports terrorist organizations with weapons and cash that are being used to kill our soldiers.  Maybe Ahmadinejad should help his own and not the insurgents and Hamas.

CaptainAmerica72
CaptainAmerica72

 Actually the Israelites fought their own wars against the Persians.  But what made me respond to your original post was that "we" destroyed their middle class. The world economy is in a crisis, our middle class right here in America is in the same boat.  I do not just remember the hostage crisis. If that was our only history with Iran then I think we could have moved on by now. Its the fact that Iran supports global terror, not just the philosophy but they pump a lot of money directly into their bank accounts.  Our young soldiers are getting killed and crippled by the explosives they supply to the insurgents. 

To sum it up, Rome was ounce an empire much like the Persian empire. America was not here then, we had nothing to do with the fall of Persia or Rome. The mongols ruled the world ounce. I do not see Mongolians blowing up women and children...  

snowleopard (cat folk gallery)
snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

Will it change the nuclear option for the government of Iran?

Nope.

Poliphobic
Poliphobic

Might even make them more determined and hatred for America grow stronger amongst the ordinary Iranians.

snowleopard (cat folk gallery)
snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

True - yet here are some questions I have been having lately:

How much of the economic chaos is due to the sanctions?

How much due to the Iranian mismanagement of their economy?

How long has a level of hyper inflation (which appears to be happening) been going on that has evaded the media?

As we are seeing in China, a nation that is having massive economic problems may try to focus the peoples attention onto a foreign power to distract them from the regimes failures.

Quite often this leads to a war being started; and no telling how those will ever end.

The last clear case of such occuring was with the Falkland Islands.

Poliphobic
Poliphobic

Valid questions and I suspect no-one outside of Iran really knows the answers , though presumably relaxing the sanctions would reveal them.

However, in a sense it is immaterial, because the outcome is liable to be the same. Expressed differently, it is not the truth that matters so much as what the Iranian people believe the truth to be. 

Certainly national leaders often welcome conflict as a diversion from their domestic failures, ours here in Britain being no exception, but I think the the Iranian government genuinely feels threatened by America/Israel - their desire for nuclear weapons being a response to that.   A classic "catch 22" situation. 

Mary M. Stover
Mary M. Stover

The only reason they're wasting national resources on a nuclear program is that their pride has been trampled for 60 years. WWW.GetPositionBetweenMilliona...

TexasMom2012
TexasMom2012

BS. Their pride is misplaced. What accomplishments have they brought to the world, rugs? Pride in a 7th century mindset is mistaken pride. Frankly, I am simply tired of Islam. These people need to grow a pair and stop blaming everyone but themselves for their backwards selves. I am usually a tolerant person but I simply have none left for these backward medieval people. Starting to believe the crusades simply didnt go far enough. If they had done the job back then we wouldn't be dealing with this garbage now... Nuke Mecca and then threaten to nuke every dad gum holy sight they have. After the destruction Islam has caused on other religons holy sites (Afghan ancient Buddas for example) I have no reason to respect the holy sites of Islam. Bomb them back to when they want to be! Enough pandering, give them what they deserve. Obviously there are way more than a few radical Muslims... So don't be shy about bombing them back to the stone age. Do not allow them current technology like cell phones...

Talendria
Talendria

Please go easy on the nuke talk.  While I sympathize with your frustration, it's important to remember that we're not the only nation on this planet that possesses a nuclear arsenal.  Also, my hairdresser is Muslim, and she's really very nice.

Mary M. Stover
Mary M. Stover

that could just as easily make the case for nuclear retreat as it could burnish the appeal of a nuclear deterrent. ..GetPositionBetweenMillionaires.notlong.com

Mary M. Stover
Mary M. Stover

@Talendria:disqus In other words, I think this ham-fisted approach is likely to do more harm than good. ..GetPositionBetweenMillionaires.notlong.com