Will Sanctions Against Iran Really Serve the West's Interests?

Applied sanctions could alienate Iran's younger generation from the West, reverse their political leanings.

The nuclear security summit convened last week by U.S. President Barack Obama, though intended to recruit 47 heads of state to join the plan to impose sanctions on Iran, was a long way from offering an appropriate response to Tehran's initiatives to go nuclear. China, specifically, despite a declared softening in its stance, is still not ready to sign off on the proposed sanctions.

Proponents of sanctions against Iran should keep a particular statistic in mind: According to a survey by an Iranian consumer organization, Iran ranks seventh in the world in the purchase of cosmetics. Every year, Iranians spend approximately $2.1 billion on creams, lipstick, shampoo, makeup and so on, with most of these items imported from abroad. The Islamic Republic accounts for nearly a third of the cosmetics consumption in the Middle East.

The example of cosmetics illustrates a larger dilemma faced by the United States as it seeks to impose sanctions. More than half of Iran's 74 million inhabitants are under the age of 30, making it a target population for both the marketers of cosmetics and for the opposition activists seeking to recruit young people to their ranks. What effect would applied sanctions have on the political leanings of this younger generation, the same one the United States hopes to instill with Western values? Finding a way to avoid harming Iranian citizens, while at the same time conveying a sharp message to Iran and other countries, has proved difficult.

According to statements made by Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Iran's aspiration to obtain nuclear arms is a recognized fact. Obama's promise - that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against countries that do not possess such weapons themselves, apart from Iran and North Korea - clearly implies that Washington has not ruled out the use of nuclear or conventional weapons against Iran and North Korea. This seems to attest to the fact that the reaction of the Iranian population is of secondary interest to the U.S. administration, which believes there is little prospect of fomenting a revolution from within in light of how the opposition has been silenced.

Iranian opposition intellectuals, for their part, have made statements effectively saying there is no choice but to impose sanctions on Iran. Last week, for example, Saeed Ghasemzadeh wrote in the opposition newspaper Rooz that, although he is not convinced that sanctions will deter Iran from developing nuclear arms, as "the Islamic Republic views the possession of nuclear weapons [as] a guarantee for its security against foreign threats," nevertheless "from a global perspective, Iran is a rogue state that has ignored repeated UN Security Council resolutions... Ignoring Iran means giving the green light to other countries that may have similar aspirations." Ghasemzadeh explained that Iran's self-confidence stems from its leaders' assessment that "because of [the United States'] current entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, including its war against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, it does not have the capability to get involved in another war."

However, Ghasemzadeh maintains, in terms of the public's reaction, and more particularly that of the opposition, sanctions are a double-edged sword. The opposition may well foment riots against the regime, which will be blamed for the economic distress caused by the sanctions, he explains, but at the same time such disturbances will give the regime an excuse to crush the opposition by force.

The absence of a response and of criticism on the part of the opposition to the sharp tone of the official discourse emanating from Washington may also show that the opposition itself does not know what will serve it best. Greater pressure from outside provides it with new reasons to criticize the regime, but as the pressure intensifies, every voice raised against the regime could be accused of betraying the homeland. The witch hunt of opposition activists, which continues unabated, and the harsh sentences delivered by the courts against the accused, are part of the regime's message - aimed not only at the dissidents, but also intended to make it clear to Washington that it cannot rely on its "allies" inside Iran.

Several developments attest to a diplomatic campaign to which Iran attaches no less importance than it does to its technological capabilities. Among them: the pomposity with which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad conducted the dedication ceremony of the centrifuges, and the technical specifications he broadcast to the world - to the effect that they represent a new generation, five times as fast as the previous generation; the announcement that Iran will develop a plant to produce nuclear fuel and thus free itself of its dependence on the West; the frequent announcements about the development of another 10 sites to enrich uranium, and the counter-threats to the American threats; and now the nuclear conference in Iran, as a response to the nuclear summit in Washington.

It's hard to find a country with nuclear capability that is bent on making its capabilities public. Even countries that do not maintain a policy of nuclear ambiguity, such as India and Pakistan, do not go about telling everyone how they enrich uranium or what their future plans are in this realm. Iran has two main reasons for showing its cards. First, Tehran insists that it is not violating either international law - the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - to which it is a signatory. There were a few hitches but they were corrected, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said this week in an interview. He was referring to Iran's failure to report on the activity at the Qom nuclear site and about other activity in the realm of nuclear research. But in his opinion, every country that is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has made similar breaches. Besides, he said, "The agency inspectors are residing in Iran [and] have their cameras taking pictures 24 hours per day."

The second reason for the relatively large number of details being provided is that the Iranian regime views the development of nuclear technology as a demonstration of strength, able to compete with the might of the West and thus settle an historic account dating from the colonial era - when Iran was a "captive" of the Western powers. This does not mean that Iran is not aspiring to develop nuclear arms and will make do merely with a demonstration of its technological capability. The assumption must be that Iran will obtain nuclear arms, with sanctions or without them. However, the technological achievement stems from a national as well as a military outlook.

This is also the pretext for the counter-conference organized by Iran. Sixty countries were invited to attend the two-day summit, which began Saturday, under the slogan "Nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for no one." Few heads of state were expected to attend, and even Turkey, under heavy American pressure, decided to send a low-ranking official rather than its foreign minister. For Iran, though, the conference is an important demonstration of its international standing, as honor plays a central role in the Iranian nuclear project, something the West would do well to take into account.