by Azita Carlson
With US sanctions reinstated, the Free Iran Rally in Paris included a panel discussion on the role of sanctions and their effectiveness against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and the Iranian regime. Lincoln Bloomfield, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Military Affairs, moderated the discussion and opened the event with a pertinent question; what can the international community do to object to the behaviour of the Iranian regime?
The role of sanctions in international diplomacy
Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS), was the first to speak. He outlined the crucial role sanctions played in securing the Iran nuclear deal under the Obama administration. They forced the regime to the negotiating table by hitting its oil revenues.
The sanctions cost the regime US$150 billion in lost oil revenues and caused the Iranian economy to contract by 15%-20%. At the core of the regime, the sanctions hurt the IRGC. The IRGC is present in every major sector of the Iranian economy, controlling 20-30% of the Iranian economy through front companies.
They are only effective as part of a wider approach
Tertrais went on to explore the limitations of sanctions. Although they hurt the IRGC’s oil revenues, Tertrais was careful to assert that they are by no means a “magic bullet”. He described how the IRGC has adapted to sanctions and found ways to live with them.
Edward Lintner, former Deputy Minister of Interior of Germany, continued the discussion. He suggested that alongside sanctions, the international community should extend support for the democratic opposition within Iran. As the only viable democratic alternative to the regime, this would be the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
The “sanctions affect the Iranian people” argument
Lintner also dealt with a common argument which is spouted by critics of economic sanctions. Those who oppose international sanctions against the Iranian regime often argue that they only add to the suffering of the Iranian people. However, Edward Lintner explained how this argument does not apply to the Iranian situation.
When the Iran nuclear deal was signed, the Iranian regime received a windfall of money and the regime was able to increase oil production from 1.2 million barrels per day to 2.5 million. This generated significant revenues for the regime and the IRGC. However, the lives of the Iranian public did not improve.
The money was funnelled abroad to rebel groups in the Middle East, and much of it went straight into the mullahs’ pockets through corruption. Therefore, without sanctions, the standard of living for the Iranian public is no higher. Also, Lintner reasons that a regime with less money at its disposal will be unlikely to have the resources to commit so many atrocities against the local population.
Sanctions have the potential to be more effective this time around
The proposed sanctions could be an effective catalyst for regime change in Iran. Michael Pregent, Middle East analyst at the Hudson Institute, outlined how the current climate in Iran lends itself to the success of international sanctions.
The last time Iran was racket by extensive internal unrest was in 2009. The Iranian public took to the streets to express their fury at the rigged re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But in 2009, the prevailing thought in the US was that if the US involved itself in Iran, it would only push the protests closer to the regime. The protestors were not calling for regime change, they were merely expressing frustration with the election rigging.
However, the situation now is vastly different. Describing the situation, Pregent said, “the protestors are asking for American support. The protestors are asking for western support”. This time the grassroots movement wants regime change.
The public is blaming the regime for Iran’s dire economic situation. It blames the regime for funding Hezbollah and carrying out widespread human rights abuses. In this context, sanctions will only increase the blame aimed at the regime and further fuel public appetite for regime change.
Like Tertrais, Pregent acknowledged that sanctions are only effective in conjunction with other measures. He proposed disclosing the personal fortunes of the regime’s leadership. Pregent speculated that the foot soldiers of the IRGC may feel more receptive to regime change should they be made aware of the vast personal wealth held by generals such as Soleimani and the Supreme Leader, who has amassed more than US$190 million.
Sanctions have the power to curb Iran’s meddling in the Middle East
Robert Joseph, U.S. Special Envoy for Nuclear Non-proliferation and former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, added that sanctions could have a profound impact on the Middle East region as a whole.
He called for harsher sanctions covering every sector of the Iranian economy, including mining, engineering, and construction. This would cripple IRGC revenue and curb the group’s ability to fund its destabilising ventures abroad, such as funding Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Assad regime.
Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, of the Institut Thomas More and l’Institut Français de Geopolitique, echoed this sentiment. He called on the EU to put national security ahead of commercial interests. He asserted that unity among the Western governments to bring an end to the mullahs’ destabilisation of the Middle East and their threat to global peace and security.
Achieving western unity on the issue of sanctions
Moving forward, how can we ensure agreement among Western nations for the introduction of sanctions against the regime? Michael Pregent suggested that if the protest movement in Iran continues to display slogans explicitly calling for regime change, a united stance from the Western governments will emerge.
He called on the Iranian opposition movement to continue chanting slogans promoting regime change, slogans like those used in Mashhad recently, where protestors chanted “death to Rouhani” and “death to the dictator”.
Several panellists also agreed it was the Western media’s responsibility to produce more accurate and honest reports. Some outlets, such as the New York Times, have published articles which have been soft on the regime, and even favourable in some cases. Lincoln Bloomfield speculated that this may be because they don’t want their reporter’s visas rescinded.
We need to call the regime what it is: evil
Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier agreed. He said the media and the international community needed to call the Iranian regime exactly what it is: “evil”.
The final messages from the panel were words of encouragement. Before Bloomfield opened the discussion to audience questions, Robert Joseph offered some words of encouragement for the Iranian people. “My sense is that there will be a spark,” he said. “I don’t know what it will be or what it will look like. But I know it is coming.”