How Sanctions Work

In The New York Times op-ed page, Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes that the week-old UN sanctions on Iran are beginning to have its intended effect.

“Top leaders of the Islamic Republic, from Ayatollah Khamenei to Mr. Rafsanjani, have made it clear that they consider sanctions a serious threat — more serious, according to Mr. Rafsanjani, than the possibility of an invasion.

“In other words, what the unilateral and increasingly quixotic American embargo could not do in more than a decade, a limited United Nations resolution has accomplished in less than a month. And the resolution succeeded because few things frighten the mullahs more than the prospect of confronting a united front made up of the European Union, Russia, China and the United States. The resolution was a manifestation of just such a united front.”

Milani also states that the powerful insiders like Ali Larjani, the top Iranian nuclear negotiator, are in damage-control mode right now. Incidentally, this includes a series of high-level repudiations of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confrontational rhetoric about the Holocaust. But more to the point, the sanctions seem to have inspired the Iranian regime to contemplate what previously they had not. As Milani writes, the Ayatollah’s foreign policy advisor stated forthrightly “that suspending Uranium enrichment is not a red line for the regime.” So despite President Ahmadinejad’s blustery proclamations to the contrary, the real power players behind Iranian foreign policy are willing to agree to some sort of compromise that includes suspension. It should be noted that the current sanctions regime is actually rather limited in scope. Still, though the Security Council only agreed to a “light” sanctions package, the Council’s unified front seems to be having a demonstrable effect on the debate within Iran. The sanctions, though not terribly robust, are beginning show its outsized political utility.