What about democracy in Iran?

Sanctions against Iran tighten with every year that passes—all in an effort to force the regime to account for its nuclear program. How do the sanctions affect the Iranian people and their fight for democracy? Trita Parsi, one of the world's top Iran experts, asserts that it is a question which is seldom asked. The sanctions have so far only resulted in the Iranian currency facing collapse, reduced oil revenues, a runaway inflation and increased poverty, he writes. 

June 10 2013 Text: Trita Parsi

In 2009, the Iranian regime faced its greatest threat ever. An estimated 3 million people demonstrated in the streets of Tehran against the massive fraud that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to his second term as President.

For a brief moment, the West saw Iran as more than just a “nuclear program with a country.” The courage and non-violent discipline of the Iranian protesters was inspiring. A hint was given of the orientation a democratic Iran would have. And for a few weeks, the West adopted an approach that sought to be sensitive to the needs and desires of the Iranian people. But as soon as prospects for an immediate victory for the opposition dimmed, the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program reclaimed Western focus. And with that, any meaningful considerations for Iran’s struggling pro-democracy opposition all but evaporated.

Four years later, Iran is under the most crippling sanctions regime ever designed. It is so extensive few believe there is anything left to sanction. Iran is essentially shut out of the global financial system, Europe has ceased all imports of Iranian oil, and the US has pressured other states to reduce their consumption of Iranian oil with up to 40 percent. The end result thus far has been an almost collapse of the Iranian currency, a 50-60 percent drop in oil revenues, skyrocketing inflation and increased poverty. On top of that, financial sanctions have made it next to impossible for Iran to import medicine, creating a health crisis that soon can turn into a humanitarian catastrophe.

These punishing measures have ostensibly been imposed to change the Iranian government’s nuclear calculus and compel it to shift its policy. So far, we have seen no signs of any softening of the Iranian position, in spite the massive toll of the sanctions, and studies show that there are few reasons to believe that additional pain would cause the Iranian government to capitulate its nuclear program.

The question that rarely if ever gets asked is how the sanctions are affecting the Iranian people and their struggle for democracy?

If we depart from the assumption that it lies in the interest of the West to see Iran move towards democracy, then the sanctions policy should be fundamentally reconsidered because broad sanctions and democratization rarely go hand in hand. Past experience with broad sanctions show that if anything, they run counter to democratization. Of the 35 authoritarian states that successfully transitioned to democracy since 1955, only one—South Africa—did so under broad economic sanctions. Out of the other 34 states that democratized, 20 had limited economic sanctions imposed on them. Fourteen countries transitioned successfully to democracy under no sanctions at all. And the role of sanctions in the South African case is debatable. Mats Lundahl of Stockholm School of Economics suggests that sanctions against the South Africa’s industrial sector contributed to the longevity of the agrarian-based apartheid regime. The trade, investment, and oil boycotts were harsher on industry, thus inadvertently advancing the agricultural sector by strengthening its grasp on the unskilled labor market. Lundahl argues that if industrial capitalism had been allowed to flourish, a labor market shift to the industrial sector would have organically accelerated the end of apartheid, a system that relied on the availability of large masses of cheap unskilled labor and suppressed the emergence of a numerically strong skilled labor force.

Perhaps more importantly, out of the twelve authoritarian states under broad economic sanctions, only one transitioned to democracy (again, South Africa). The others – Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Vietnam, Burma and Zimbabwe—tended to become more unfree, more undemocratic, more repressive, and in many cases, more dangerous. Perhaps it is not surprising that Iran’s indigenous pro-democracy has strongly opposed the sanctions. “We are against [sanctions] because it will affect people's lives,” Mir Hossein Mousavi of the Iranian Green Movement said in 2010. On his webpage, he wrote: “This is not sanctions against a government. This would impose further pain on a nation that has already suffered a great deal by its schizophrenic rulers. We are against any kind of sanctions on people.” The opposition inside the country is fully aware that dictatorships faced with sanctions tend to enhance their grip on power, but also that successful cases of democratization have overwhelmingly occurred in the absence of broad economic sanctions.

The Iraq example provides further information as to how sanctions undermine democratization. Only a month after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration began planning the Iraq war and the post-Saddam transition. The State Department organized over 200 Iraqi engineers, lawyers, businesspeople, doctors and other experts into 17 working groups to strategize on topics including public health and humanitarian needs, transparency and anti-corruption, oil and energy, defense policy and institutions, transitional justice, democratic principles and procedures, local government, civil society capacity building, education, free media, water, agriculture and environment and economy and infrastructure. Thirty-three total meetings were held from July 2002 through early April 2003. The planning resulted in a 1,200-page 13-volume report, whose findings eventually were ignored once the Department of Defense took over responsibility for post-war reconstruction in Iraq. The report included a multitude of facts, strategies, predictions and warnings about a diverse range of complex and potentially explosive issues, including the recurring theme of the detrimental, long-term effects of broad economic sanctions on reconstruction and democratization. For instance, the Transparency and Anti-corruption group noted: “The international sanctions of the last decade have had the effect of expanding endemic corruption and black market activities into every sector of the economic life. Survival has been the only engine of the Iraqi economy beyond direct government expenditures for the past decade. The rules of expediency that dominate and characterize economic life and the methodology of corruption are difficult to remove and replace.”

The Economy and Infrastructure working group pointed out that “women are bearing the brunt of years of war and sanctions in Iraq. The past decade had seen a decline in educational opportunities for women, a jump in female illiteracy and rising poverty.” In fact, as the Iraqi economy was shrunk to about $15bn by the sanctions, the economic incentives for households changed. There were no jobs, so the benefit of sending girls to school diminished. Economically, it made more sense for a lot of Iraqi families to keep the girls at home to help with the household. Consequently, female illiteracy rose in a country otherwise known for having the highest educational standard in the entire Arab world.

The question that then must be asked reads: Is a country with a rising female illiteracy rate as a result of the poverty caused by sanctions more or less likely to transition to democracy? Even if the sanctions cause the dictatorial regime to collapse, will heightened poverty and female illiteracy help or harm the prospects of the next regime being democratic? And this is of course beyond the immorality of sanctions killing an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children. Iran is not at this point—yet. But it’s clear that the trajectory is towards a repeat of the Iraq scenario if the sanctions remain in place. According to veteran New York Times correspondent Nazila Fathi: “We can already see how the sanctions have undermined the Iranian middle-class and civil society. People who raised in 2009 against the regime - at one point the regime acknowledged that three million had staged an anti-government protest, have retreated to their homes and are silent. They're simply under too much economic pressure to care about politics or human rights violations … Sanctions not only ruin the modern, moderate, educated middle class, they turn people sour and brutal. People are losing loved ones because of a lack of medication. People are cutting down on food and their children's education. Workers are losing their jobs and God knows where they turn to feed their children. None of this undermines the Islamic Republic. Iraq and the violence that followed Saddam's fall, should be a lesson.”

Thus far, the cries of the Iranian pro-democracy movement have passed unheeded. In fact, there is hardly a debate in the US and the EU about the costs and benefits of the existing sanctions policy. And within Western government circles, there aren’t any strategic discussions on how to amend the sanctions, use them as a bargaining chip or find some other form of exit from a policy that is neither preventing war, preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, or preventing the tightening of the Iranian regime’s grip on power.

The dictatorial elements in Iran could not be any happier.