Mark Fitzpatrick on the Influence of Western Sanctions on the Iranian ElectionPosted: June 17, 2013
As the news of the Iranian election’s results came in on Saturday, Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS sent out a Tweet saying:
My conclusion: Iranians are fed up with Sanctions and with the leaders who couldn’t stop them.
This was my first exposure to an argument that has since been making the rounds on the web, championed by nonproliferation types with close ties to Washington DC, like Fitzpatrick. The basic idea of this argument is that the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, in Iran is confirmation of the effectiveness of Western economic sanctions in influencing Iran’s nuclear policy.
I find this argument particularly analytically odious for several reasons. First, it attempts to simplify what I think is a very complex and nuanced dynamic between the Western sanctions and both the Iranian public and Iranian officials’ reactions to them. Second, I think at an essential level it is incorrect. I would cite as evidence for this conclusion a Gallup poll that was conducted only four months ago in Iran. This poll found that, while the Western-imposed sanctions have indeed had a very serious effect upon the living conditions and overall financial well being of ordinary Iranians, they overwhelmingly blame the U.S., and not their own leaders, for the sanctions. Furthermore, according to the poll, the Iranian public still overall supports their country’s nuclear program and aspirations. Here’s an excerpt from the summary of results:
Despite Effects of Sanctions, Many Iranians Support Nuclear Program
The majority of Iranians are so far seemingly willing to pay the high price of sanctions. Sixty-three percent say that Iran should continue to develop its nuclear program, even given the scale of sanctions imposed on their country because of it. In December, one in two Iranians supported their country developing its own nuclear power capabilities for nonmilitary uses.
Iranians Hold U.S. Most Responsible for Sanctions
Iranians are most likely to hold the U.S. (47%) responsible for the sanctions against Iran. One in 10 Iranians says their own government is most to blame for sanctions.
Iranians report feeling the effect of sanctions, but still support their country’s efforts to increase its nuclear capabilities. This may indicate that sanctions alone are not having the intended effect of persuading Iranian residents and country leaders to change their stance on the level of international oversight of their nuclear program. Iran, as one of the most populous nations in a region undergoing monumental shifts, will remain a key country in the balance of power for the Middle East. Thus, the United States’, Russia’s, and Europe’s relationship with the Iranian people remains a matter of strategic interest. The effect of sanctions on Iranians’ livelihoods and the blame they place on the U.S. will continue to be a major challenge for the U.S. in Iran and in neighboring countries such as Iraq. Recent reports that Tehran and Washington might enter into direct talks were short-lived when Iran’s supreme leader made a statement strongly rejecting them. With Iran preparing for elections later this year, a turning point is needed to get leaders on both sides out of the current stalemate on the country’s nuclear program.
The results of this poll would seem to directly contradict Fitzpatrick’s conclusions regarding both the nature of the influence of Western sanctions on the Iranian election, and the locus of blame which ordinary Iranians perceive for their suffering under the sanctions.
I would instead recommend Seyed Hossain Mousavian’s analysis of the effect of Western sanctions on Iran and its nuclear policy here.