This week, The House of Representatives passed further sanctions against Iran in a 421-6 vote as a consequence for not halting their nuclear program. This augments the sanctions which banned companies that do business with Iran's central bank from business in the US in 2011 and the first round of sanctions passed by the Obama Administration in 2009. President Obama has received great praise from leaders both in the US and in Israel like Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres for his stance on Israel-the latter two are featured in a new Obama campaign video.
The sanctions themselves have had a crippling effect on Iran's economy. As of January of 2012, Iran's currency has lost 71 percent of its value since September of 2011. In addition, stories have come out of Iran regarding planes not having proper landing gears due to sanctions against Iran passed by President Clinton. In addition, the Iranian Hemophilia Society claims that the lives of thousands of children are at risk of hemophilia due to the effects of sanctions.
It is common conventional wisdom that the United States pass sanctions against countries that act against the interest of the United States and its allies. The US enacted an embargo against Cuba with the rise of Fidel Castro passed sanctions against Iraq in order to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining chemical weapons, and against South Africa as a means of fighting apartheid. The general theory behind sanctions is that if enough economic pressure is placed on a country, either the governing regime will relent or the people will rise up and turn against their governing body. However, with economic sanctions comes severe pain for the populace of the country suffering under sanctions. In addition, it has become quite apparent over the years that economic sanctions have not been as effective as some of their proponents say they are.
Case in point, 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the aforementioned sanctions against Fidel Castro's Cuba. However in that time, the Cuban government has not changed hands. What has changed during that time is that healthcare quality has dramatically been diminished for Cuban people, particularly those with HIV/AIDS. In addition, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has argued that the Embargo is frivolous. Furthermore, rather than deposing the Communist government, the embargo gives the garrulous Fidel Castro something to gripe about and cite as the source of his country's ills.
Similarly, from 1991 to the 2003 Iraq War, the United States enacted sanctions in an effort to contain Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and prevent him from obtaining chemical weapons. However the sanctions also worked to create what UNICEF dubbed "a humanitarian emergency." During this time, infant mortality was rated at 131 deaths per 1000 live births. In addition, the Sanctions earned the United States the status of pariah by Islamist Extremists and was cited by Osama Bin Laden as one of a source of his antipathy towards the United States.
The two cases that humanitarians can point to as having had the desired effect of toppling regimes are the South Africa and more recently, the gradual rise in democracy in Burma. However, in both of those cases, the sanctions were specifically requested by the protesters. Bishop Desmond Tutu vehemently pushed for sanctions against his government at a time when Western leaders like American President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pushed for "constructive engagement" to gently nudge the government along. Similarly, Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has warned the United States' easing of sanctions, hoping it does not cause the government to stop the reforms made during sanctions.
Meanwhile, in Iran, it seems that the sanctions have had the opposite effect that their proponents desire. Members of the Green Movement, Iran's main opposition force, has stated their discontent with sanctions. In addition, last year, Iranian students raided the British Embassy in Tehran, chanting "Death to England," in light of a round of sanctions the UK instated against the Islamic Republic. With this in in mind, perhaps the best way forward to assisting in the end of despotic regimes is not to continue to write the same failed prescriptions but rather listen to the actual dissenters and their desires as to how to move their countries forward.