Dick Cheney’s former national security adviser John Hannah cites unnamed “Iranian activists in Europe, including figures closely linked to the green movement’s leadership” who say that “Sanctions must be imposed, and in strong doses”:
A weak dose, or gradual approach, only allows the regime to adjust, they said. To be effective, sanctions must act like a shock, not a vaccine.
Similarly, prominent Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour told a Washington conference last month: “Whereas in the past [the leaders of Iran's opposition] were … unequivocally opposed to any type of punitive measures by the United States … that’s not the case anymore.”
Its a bit odd that these unnamed “figures closely linked to the green movement’s leadership” should directly contradict green movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Meir Hossein Mousavi, both of whom recently declared their opposition to sanctions. While it’s not unimaginable that Mousavi and Karroubi would oppose sanctions publicly while their comrades favor them privately, the fact that the messenger in this case is someone who has long favored more aggressive action against Iran — a February 2007 Washington Post article named Hannah among those Bush administration officials who “relish the notion of a direct confrontation” — is cause for skepticism.
As to the Karim Sadjadpour quote that Hannah deploys to support this view, there’s obviously a rather large chasm between Iranian opposition leaders no longer being “unequivocally opposed to any type of punitive measures by the United States” and their being in favor of the sort of punishment that Hannah favors. And if the “Washington conference” to which Hannah refers is the Foreign Policy Initiative event that I reported here — which I strongly suspect it may be, as both Hannah and Harold Rhode were sitting behind me grumbling to each other about the pro-engagement bent of Sadjadpour’s panel — then it’s probably worth pointing out as well that Sadjadpour expressed strong skepticism toward sanctions, noting that Iran’s “regime never placed high priority on its peoples’ economic well-being.” (I’ve sent an email to Karim for clarification on this.)
This is a much harder call. Iran experts are split. The majority still maintain that Iranians would quickly unite to confront any foreign attacker. While opposition representatives I heard in Europe think that’s unlikely, they are deeply worried that if the regime is not crippled in any military attack, it will move ruthlessly to crush their movement for good.
But a few Iranians — especially in private — see other possibilities. They suggest that a bombing campaign that spared civilians while destroying Iran’s nuclear installations as well as targets associated with the regime’s most repressive elements — the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia — might well accelerate the theocracy’s final unraveling at the hands of an already boiling population.
In other words: Shock and awe. What could possibly go wrong? It’s probably treating Hannah’s suggestion far more seriously than it deserves to ask how, exactly, we’d “spare civilians” while destroying various buildings throughout Tehran “associated with the regime’s most repressive elements.” Maybe Hannah’s secret sources have an answer for this.
I spoke to Geneive Abdo, the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation and editor of the excellent website insideIRAN, who said “I don’t know which opposition activists [Hannah] is referring to, but I also attended a conference among Iranian activists in September in Berlin. They were against sanctions and also against a military attack on Iran. Both actions would only empower the regime.”
Although there is increasing support for tougher sanctions on Iran from Washington insiders, this would be a grave mistake. Sanctions have proven to be ineffective. They also would aid the Iranian government in blaming the United States and the United Nations and feed into the government’s most recent propaganda that Western powers are trying to destabilize the state.
In addition to very probably killing the green movement, a U.S. attack on Iran would likely have a number of other extraordinarily bad consequences for U.S. security and that of our allies. On the other hand, Hannah suggests that an attack on Iran “might well accelerate the theocracy’s final unraveling.” It’s a tough call. If only we had some recent historical example against which to measure these sorts of highly optimistic claims about the transformative potential of American military power…