Sanctions on Iran aren’t working

When dealing with Iran nuclear ambitions, states opposed to Teheran enrichment program are maintaining a decade long policy based on a three-pillar approach: the use of a stick and carrot strategy focused on pushing the Islamic Republic into renouncing to its atomic quest. Dialogue and diplomacy are meant to bridge the gap created by confrontational political systems; economic, financial and commercial sanctions are inserted to exercise a certain degree of pressure on the Iranian government; while the presence of a credible military option is meant to underline the fact that there is no easy way out for Teheran, if all else fails the country would experience a preventive strike by the US or Israel.
This system has widely been tested in the last ten years and now inevitably shows its flaws. Diplomacy is not working. Talks between P5+1 and Iranian officials have failed over and again to produce any meaningful break through. Proposals by Turkey, Brazil and Russia haven’t been able to gather international support thus adding to the feeling that the two positions remain irreconcilable. As diplomacy has not been a success, for the moment the threat of a military strike against the nuclear sites remains weak. It is highly unlikely that the US will use force against Iran as the presidential elections are nearing and the country is developing a major war fatigue feeling. The overall strategic posture of the US armed forces is to contain and deter their Persian adversaries by maintaining enough assets in the Arabian Sea. In the same line, Israel appears to be divided regarding the decision to take the weight of the mission on its shoulders as the support of the US for a strike is for the moment very limited.

In the current scenario, the only remaining policy option is the implementation of crippling sanctions that will in the medium term coerce the Islamic Republic into abandoning the militarization of its nuclear program.
Such a situation creates a policy dilemma, if right now Iran does not perceive a military strike as a concrete threat, the only option remaining on the table for the international coalition lead by the US lies in the effective and rapid success of strong and unequivocal sanctions. It may be difficult to judge the effect of these sanctions but a set of parameters may be instrumental in understanding if the attempt by the international community to preserve peace and stability by rolling back Iranian nuclear ambition is succeeding or not. A first parameter in that direction consists in the overall discourse of the Iranian regime, a second one is defined by its will to develop a situation of transparency regarding its program and the third condition depends on the will by Iran to generate foreign and defense policy moves proving its good intentions outside the nuclear file in itself are needed.
Taking these three parameters a vivid conclusion can be highlighted: international sanctions on Iran aren’t reaching their objectives.
Let there be no mistake, the country’s economy, society and armed forces are feeling the weight of these restrictions, but sanctions alone are not sufficient to push the regime to change its policies.

The discourse of the Iranian regime has not proven to be affected by the sanction regime. Ayatollah Khamenei pompously stated on July 12th that Iran is “vaccinated” to Western sanctions. President Ahmadinejad has been more realistic and acknowledged the weight of these restrictions on the overall economy of its country but vowed to fight against their effects by diversifying the national economy and improving the overall efficiency. This nationalist rhetoric sees its enactment in a set of actions taken since January 2012 which do not break with any former policy. Anti-Semitism and virulent attacks against Israel and Jewish communities remain a major part of the government discourse. The Iranian Parliament has also been lobbying for a formal petition to block the Strait of Hormuz. In addition to that, a conservative Iranian website ( has reported that a Parliamentary group has called for developing nuclear fueled ships, a technology which would necessitate weapon-grade enrichment of uranium. These fiery allegations are supported by acts that suggest Teheran is not willing to be fully transparent over its nuclear advances. Satellite imagery available on open-source websites ( is instrumental in showing that the Iranian authorities are actively hiding and protecting the facilities linked to the nuclear program.

This aggressive stance is augmented by a number of verified or alleged foreign and defense policies aimed at defining the Islamic Republic as a regional power having strong force projection capabilities. The presence of Iranian elements in Syria supporting Al Assad’s forces, the financial and material aid given to Houthi rebels in Yemen and the alleged ideological and logistical training provided to radical Islamist in Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya are foreign policy decisions aimed at increasing the assertion of the Islamic Revolution in world affairs. Along with that, more conventional military exercises, such as the recent Prophet 7 war games, keep on giving a belligerent image to Iranian military policies. The legal or illegal acquisition and development of advanced weaponry, ranging from high powered single shot rifles to ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, further provides an insight in the Persian will to grow and maintain and aggressive image.

These considerations are necessary to understand that even if the international sanction regime against Teheran is increasingly limiting the Iranian ability to have a viable economy; it does not change the basic reasons of the confrontation. Iran is today determined to keep its nuclear program on track and exploit its conventional and asymmetric forces to challenge regional actors and assert itself as a Middle Eastern power house.

This situation creates a major dilemma for the States which are opposing the Iranian nuclear program and its arm race. If sanctions aren’t working as hoped and diplomacy is not sufficient to change the will of the regime, then the military option is the only one available. As for the moment a preventive strike by the US or Israel (or any other regional actor) seems unlikely, a strong defensive posture, with an integrated ballistic missile defense and Cold-War like military and intelligence apparatus turned toward Teheran appears to be the most likely solution for Gulf Monarchies, Israel and to a lesser extent the US. The political objective becomes the following: limiting the Iranian overall capabilities to the point where confrontation is simply no longer an existing option for the Iranian government.

About the Author
Riccardo Dugulin is an independant international affairs analyst. He holds a Master in International Security from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and has worked in leading think tanks in Washington DC, Beirut and Dubai and has held the position of security coordinator for a security assistance firm.