Sanctions on Iran wouldn’t work like sanctions on South Africa did by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2009, 6:10 pm
Filed under: democracy, Iran

Reihan Salam argues the US should impose sanctions on Iran and refuse negotiations, rather than negotiating with a post-#iranelections Ahmadinejad regime if it is in US interests (as Daniel Larison suggests), because:

I agree with Larison that the Iranian regime values survival above all else, and I even agree that a policy of not interfering with Iran’s internal affairs makes a nuclear deal (faintly) possible. I happen to think that there is a better achievable outcome, a la post-1994 South Africa.

The shortest explanation of why this is wrong is that the apartheid regime was bitterly opposed by the great majority of the people it ruled, whom it oppressed and excluded from power by virtue of their skin color. Its collapse was inevitable. 5 million white people could not indefinitely continue to rule over 20 million black people and 5 million colored ones. The Islamic Republican system, however, is not bitterly opposed by the majority of people over whom it rules, and there is no clear reason why a hybrid theocratic-democratic government should not persist indefinitely in a country where only a minority of citizens are clearly secularist. All of the candidates for President in Iran support the Islamic Republican system.

There are numerous other crucial reasons why South Africa sanctions made sense and Iran sanctions don’t. Briefly:

1. The decision-making elite in South Africa were a Western-oriented international business class; punishing them by cutting off access to the West was an effective targeted sanction.

2. Oil is a lot more important than gold and diamonds. Especially to China.

3. The external “others” for South African whites were black Africa and Communism. Sanctions imposed by the white capitalist West were like an intervention by family — very convincing. The external “other” for Iran is the US and Europe. The US sanctioning Iran is like the USSR sanctioning apartheid South Africa — not very convincing.

4. It is not clear what the US would demand as a condition to lift the sanctions. What do we want here? A rerun of the elections, with foreign monitors? How does that work, exactly? A non-Islamic regime? Foolhardy to make such a demand.

5. The US had no pressing business in southern Africa, and could afford to engage in a foreign policy based on principles. The Middle East is a powderkeg and we have a lot of other important goals there.

The upshot is that further US sanctions on Iran and a refusal to negotiate over nuclear weapons won’t force a South African-style transition to democracy. That is not going to be the way things play out.


3 Comments so far
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Thinking about some kind of economic coercion makes sense — not sure exactly what it ought to look like.

Re: SA: the sanctions were arguably very ineffective in South Africa. The main economic harm was caused by ISI. Afrikaners were highly dirigiste. Yet ANC supported sanctions, so we pursued them. It did lead to an overlarge financial sector in SA and sharp wage increases. So the analogy is definitely not perfect — you make an excellent point. But I do think it is constructively provocative.

Re: #5 you make an excellent point.

Comment by Reihan

From what I’ve read you’re right that the sanctions didn’t do much economic damage. But I think, based on nothing but conversations with South Africans, that a sense of being cut off from and disdained by the West was influential. The main point I think is that as you point out the ANC was calling for sanctions, and since clearly in the long run apartheid was coming down, it was logical to keep our hands clean and cooperate with the opposition. There is no such clear organized opposition calling for sanctions in Iran, and no such clarity about the immorality, unpopularity and untenability of the system.

Comment by mattsteinglass

I know it’s not exactly on point but while you restate South Africa’s inherent and fatal moral insufficiencies it remains to be seen if it will remain a first world modern nation or devolve into anarchy and tribalism like it’s neighbor. If you had to bet now, it does not look good.This raises a kind of dilemma for the moral philosopher. Which is better? A non-democratic racist and racialist society that never the less provides a standard of living superior to what would otherwise exist and which was a net contributor to the world in science and technology and engineering and agriculture and so on or a democratically ‘just’ society which within several decades ceases to function for anyone except as a kleptocracy producing suffering without end. I don’t know the answer but glib self righteous non-thinking responses are not any help to those who actually care about African suffering.
No one doubts that Iran has all the cultural prerequisites to join the modern world. Whether it will (in time) is doubtful.

Comment by joe

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