A Proposal to Hurt the Poor in Iran, and to Enrich that Country’s Leadership
Are you tough? Or are you a wuss? Because — again with the duality of politics — those are your choices, and they are the only choices you get. If you’re tough, you’ll support sanctions. If you’re a wuss, you’ll wuss out.
I often am struck that this is how most people, both left and right, frame virtually every question of foreign policy. Now, they’ll usually add, sometimes it’s okay to be a wuss. Sometimes it’s prudent. Sometimes wusses do good things, even. But none of that changes the basic framing.
This, however, will. Sanctions work — on the margin. That is to say that sanctions affect different people, at different times, and in different ways, depending on the internal conditions of the target country. Some people in that country will suffer immediately. Others will never suffer at all. Some will even grow rich. The law that creates an economic sanction may be uniform, but its effects never are.
This is how all economic interventions work, foreign or domestic. Uniform action, disparate response.
Consider that those who have very little in a country — the poor, the marginalized, the uneducated, the sick, the very young or old — will have few resources that they can put toward subverting a sanctions regime. The wealthy, who can arrange the smuggling and pay the bribes, take a lot longer to be hit. They may even benefit — thanks to their ability to game the system, they now monopolize some scarce and valuable goods.
The more of a dictatorship a country is, the more the little people suffer, and the less the elites feel anything. We can’t really imagine that the very highest leadership of Iran is going to bear the weight of sanctions all by themselves, out of magnanimous concern for their long-suffering people. Far from it! They’ll make sure, with their command of the economy, that the poor, the marginalized, the uneducated, the sick, and all the rest suffer the most. It costs them nothing, and it sure looks good on TV.
Nor would a selfless dictator do any good for his people anyway. In a dictatorship, the ruling class is small by definition, so even if the rulers renounced all their luxuries, it’s not like it would meaningfully enrich the population. A hundred million dollars, divided by a hundred million people, is a dollar. Besides, the dictator and his cronies are the best-situated of all people in a country to appropriate everything, and to take advantage of a sanctions regime for their personal enrichment and pleasure (see: North Korea).
This is the real reason that sanctions against dictatorships rarely work. The decisionmakers absolutely never feel them. Squeeze a little, and you hurt the poor. Squeeze harder, and you hurt the middle class. Rarely, and with extraordinary pressure, you may hurt a few rich people here and there. But you can’t ever squeeze hard enough to hurt the political leadership. If you do, they just take it out on everyone else.
Note that the great success story of sanctions, the end of apartheid in South Africa, occurred in a democracy. Yes, it was a reprehensible and racist democracy, but it was still far more of a democracy than the pure sham we see in Iran. The important factor here is not whether we think the government in question is a Good One or a Bad One. Obviously South Africa was the latter. But in it, many of the people who were hurt by sanctions — the poor and middle-class whites — still got a meaningful say in politics. In Iran, there is no similar constituency. The last election appears clearly to have been stolen, the candidates’ lists are rigged anyway, and everyone knows it.
Now, maybe some of this is elementary to some people. I know that as a piece of analysis, it’s not at all original. But if what I’m saying is true, then why are sanctions so popular? Why aren’t they described for what they are? Imagine if every sanctions proposal were retitled: “Proposal to Hurt the Poor in _______, and to Enrich the Dictator and His Cronies”!
If we can’t retitle these proposals, why can’t we at least talk clearly about them? I have a answer there too, but it’s not one I like. It’s not one I even like to think about.