A New York Times article on Iran by Michael Slackman argues that we’re seeing an instance of the familiar phenomenon where international isolation and efforts to cripple the Iranian economy are strengthening the hand of hard-liners. There’s a solid case, in my view, for certain kinds of sanctions on Iran where the sanctions in question are narrowly tailored toward the objective of impeding Iran’s nuclear program as such. Broader campaigns of economic warfare, by contrast, don’t really have a great track-record of success.

One sometimes suspects that the best way to topple a repressive regime like the one in Teheran would be to kill it with kindness. A more prosperous Iran would be a country with more and better televisions, computers, radios, cell phones and therefore access to information and ability to disseminate it. It would be a place where people had more money to spare for civil society groups, and perhaps more leisure time available with political — or politicizable — activities. Of course, that’s hardly guaranteed to work either (look at China, or Singapore) but outside of the rather unusual case of South Africa, it’s hard to see this kind of economic coercion persuading a regime to change its nature.

For more limited goals, though, you can imagine it working much better. Hence the fatal ambiguity of America’s policies toward Iran. Getting Teheran to agree to verifiable nuclear disarmament would be extracting a big concession from them. But it wouldn’t threaten the regime in a core way. Economic coercion could work. But if we really do want to move forward on that limited goal, we would need to adopt a posture suggesting that our goals really are limited and that a disarmed Iran would get normal diplomatic recognition, a full end to economic coercion, and a healthy respect for its interests in Iraq and Iran. Most generally, it would mean agreeing to treat Iran as a potential ally of convenience against al-Qaeda rather than as an integral part of some ill-defined “mean Muslims” menace.

The Bush administration has, of course, steadfastly refused to do so. And that’s what makes it so hard to evaluate things like Democratic support for ever-increasing levels of coercion. Those kinds of policies could be good or could be bad all depending on the context. Meanwhile, it’s hard to know what kind of broader context different Democrats see as appropriate since it’s not considered politically wise to talk about things like Iran’s various spurned peace initiatives over the years.