Today's date:
Spring 2010

Sanctions Will Only Bolster Iranian Regime

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He now lives in exile outside of Paris.

Paris—United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has openly stated an obvious fact that is finally becoming clear to outsiders: Iran is moving toward military dictatorship. However, her proposed solution of imposing hard sanctions aimed at weakening Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and their Revolutionary Guard allies will have the opposite effect: It will strengthen them. In the name of promoting democracy, the US government will in fact be throwing a life jacket to the sinking Iranian regime.

Sanctions will be counterproductive because the threat of international crisis is the Iranian regime’s only remaining resource for legitimizing its despotic power. The previous bulwarks of support for power in Tehran—large land ownership and the urban bazaar, the monarchy and the clergy—have already been dismantled through a succession of revolutionary movements over the years. The Shah was forced to abolish large land ownership in the 1960s. The 1979 revolution removed the monarchy. The dictatorship that followed the 1981 coup that ousted my government was supported only by the clergy.

Because the legitimacy of the clergy-inspired coup was very fragile, the radical clerics behind it were able to bolster their claim to power only by plunging the country into a constant state of crisis through confrontation. They began this strategy with the student occupation of the American embassy just before I was elected president and persisted in that course by continuing the war with Iraq after Saddam Hussein accepted Iran’s terms for ending it nine months after he invaded in 1980. Since Ahmadinejad took power, however, most of the clergy have either deserted the regime or are being forced out. The situation is thus more fragile still. It is in this context that the creation of international enemies is the last bastion of the regime’s ability to hold on to power.

While George W. Bush’s confrontational Iran policy was a gift to the regime, helping Ahmadinejad to consolidate his power by standing up to the US, Barack Obama’s non-confrontational policy withdrew this “gift” and created the political space for Iranians to oppose the regime. If Obama now reverses his non-confrontational policy and returns to the Bush-era approach, it will only make it more difficult for Iranians to continue their protracted and herculean task of replacing the ruling military-financial mafia with a home-grown democracy.

President Obama would thus be well advised to avoid confrontational policies like economic sanctions or threatening military attack.

Instead, the US should allow the Iranians to see their own struggle through. They are entirely capable.

If governments sincerely support the democratic movement in Iran, they should adopt a position of active neutrality. Such a policy not only implies avoiding confrontation; it also means taking an “active” stance on human rights issues, publishing information listing the names and financial holdings key members of the regime have in Western and non-Western banks, stopping the sale of technology that can be used for censorship and oppression and, finally, supporting efforts to try the leaders of Iran for crimes against humanity because of their increasingly harsh repression as they become more isolated.

Adopting these policies will offer the greatest assistance to Iranians in their struggle for establishing a democratic state. Confrontation with the US-led West is the fondest hope of the Revolutionary Guard, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. Without it, the military dictatorship can’t survive the opposition of the Iranian people themselves.