Monday, March 29, 2021

Sanctions Hurt People, not Regimes

Azadeh Moaveni and Sussan Tahmasebi have a piece in the Times today protesting that sanctions on Iran mainly hurt the very people who hate the regime most, middle class women.

A few weeks after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned “brutal men of the regime” in Tehran for oppressing Iranian women who were demanding their rights. “As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms that the men of Iran possess,” Mr. Pompeo said. . . .

The decimation of Iran’s economy is unfolding in the lives of the very constituency that has been working for reform and liberalization, and in whose name Mr. Pompeo and other leading American officials speak: middle-class Iranian women. The slump is tearing away at their fragile gains in employment, upper management positions and leadership roles in the arts and higher education, while reducing their capacity to seek legal reforms and protections.

When the sanctions hit, Mahsa Mohammadi, a 45-year-old editor and language teacher in Tehran, was saving to pay for a graduate degree in education at a university in Istanbul. Her rent in Tehran doubled because of inflation, and she was forced to move with her young son to a small city with no cultural life.

Inflation continued rising; the rents doubled again. Ms. Mohammadi lost most of her income from English tutoring. No one could afford language classes anymore. She could then no longer afford even the small city. She moved to a cheaper, conservative hamlet near the Caspian Sea where people look down on divorced mothers. Studying abroad is now an increasingly elusive dream.

“All our demands and hopes have whittled away,” she said. “The pressure is unbearable.”

The problem with using sanctions as a weapon against repressive regimes was laid out by George Orwell in 1984. Orwell's mega-states fight endless wars against each other, partly to whip up patriotism but partly to use up resources that would otherwise lift the populace out of poverty and therefore out of their complete dependence on the regime. Digging and refilling enormous holes, he wrote, would work just as well, but war was more plausible.

Many social scientists have said the same thing more analytically: poverty helps thugs stay in power, because when resources are scarce they control the only path to a decent material life.

On the other hand we tried to opposite tack with China, thinking that trade and openness and rising incomes would moderate their regime, and that hasn't worked very well, either.

I am not sure where this leaves us, since I think war with Iran would be disastrous for everyone. Perhaps admitting that events in other countries are not really something we can or should try to do something about.


Shadow said...

But the people in China are doing better, while the people in Iran are not, right? So what's the goal here? To help people or force regime change? Maybe that's the first question to ask? Seems a little silly to think sanctions will only hurt the "bad guys." Kind of like dropping a bomb from 10,000 feet expecting it to devastate only those you want it to harm.

szopen said...

Well, Poland.

G. Verloren said...

Sanctions may hurt people rather than regimes, but isn't the point of sanctions is to be an alternative to warfare, which ALSO hurts people rather than regimes, just even MORESO?

It's always tricky to judge when, where, and to what extent to employ negative consequences to try to motivate people to behave better, and it's even harder when trying to motivate regimes.

Sometimes, positive incentives just don't work very well to stop an unwanted behavior. In particular, there are certain kinds of behaviors where such a method is more or less absurd. For example, you don't stop bullying by simply offering a reward for good behavior, you stop it by drawing a line in the sand and explaining that there will be no tolerance for bullying, and then once the threat of consequences have halted the active abuse, you start addressing the underlying issues that led the person to bully others in the first place.

Similarly, you're not likely to stop nuclear proliferation by giving rewards to a problematic regime that is trying to use the threat of nuclear weapons to gain power and special treatment. There has to be some sort of negative consequence for their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, and then once proliferation is halted, you can then address the underlying issues that led that regime to attempt it. No country invests in nuclear weapons without feeling they have some important need or desire which is unmet, and which won't -be- met until they can force other countries to take them seriously.

If the problem is that they feel they can't compete fairly in a world in which certain countries dominate global politics because of their nuclear arsenals, then honestly, that needs to be addressed. That's a problem with us as much as it's a problem with them. We need to be taking greater steps to disarm, both ourselves and the rest of the planet. The nuclear status quo cannot persist.

G. Verloren said...

To put things more succinctly...

Bullies almost always start as victims. Iran and China are both bullies, but their bullying is the product of their own victimhood at the hands of other bullies.

Which bullies? Well... the key powers of Western World. Us and our allies. We did horrible, monstrous, unjustifiable things to the Chinese and the Iranians. We bullied them to an unbelievable degree historically, and we continue to bully them by holding a nuclear cudgel over their heads and using it as coercive leverage. And then we're shocked and dismayed that they respond by being bullies in their own right?

The underlying problem is, and has always been, us. We create all our worst enemies. We sow the wind, and then are dismayed to reap the whirlwind.

Anonymous said...

There is absolutely no good reason to begin ANOTHER US war.

David said...


In the case of China, the bullying against them stopped in 1945 (or, if you wish, 1949). China is also well-armed with nuclear weapons of its own, and has been for over 50 years. If they still have a chip on their shoulder about, say, the Opium Wars or the Boxer Indemnity, that represents to me a form of willful, self-indulgent pleasure in their own sense of victimization and the license they think that gives them to behave badly. China is doing very, very well for itself, and is entitled to no sense of victimization.

On the other hand, I think you're right that sanctions started as an alternative to war. John suggests a different alternative, which is doing nothing, because there's nothing we can do. I think he may be right.

That said, it is worth noting that the Chinese government seems really bitter about criticism of its treatment of the Uighurs. Mere moral criticism may look wimpy and hand-wringing, but it often seems to bother the people it's directed against a lot. My impression is that it is a strange but true fact that the wave of human rights criticism started in the late seventies by Carter really embarrassed the Soviets. There are certain type of international leaders who are impervious to criticism, such as a willful heel like Trump or Duterte, who would revel in such criticism, or a fanatic like Khomeini who simply wouldn't care. But the Chinese crave international acceptance.

G. Verloren said...


I think to suggest that the bullying stopped in 1945 is to drastically overlook or dismiss a huge portion of the Cold War: the Sino-Soviet split, the proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, the fact that it took a Nixon to go to China, etc.

And even if one were to entertain the notion of that 1945 date, that would still mean we're dealing with a history of abuse that was so severe and stretched on so long it has become known as The Century of Humiliation. That kind of cultural trauma has tremendous inertia and doesn't dissipate easily or quickly. After 110 years of abuse at the hands of foreigners, to think they would get over it in a mere 77 years seems rather naively optimistic - particularly when the regime that lifted them out of that state of constant abuse was itself a very recent creation, and was born directly out of opposing anything and everything Western.

Obviously even in 1945 there were many Chinese for whom the foreign abuses suffered over the past century weren't such a sticking point that they couldn't move past them - but the Kuomingtang lost, and the CPC settled into a fiercely independent (and at time vengeful) attitude that has persisted to this day. They have an overpowering pathological need to demonstrate that they are tough and powerful and should be feared and respected - the classic mindstate of a bully.

And the thing about bullies is this: they don't naturally stop being bullies. Something has to happen which forces them to confront the reality of their behavior, and the immorality of it. They need to be made to feel empathy for those they are hurting, and they need to also not be overpowered by shame or a feeling of victimhood which might get in the way of that empathy developing.

Sadly, I don't know how that can happen in the current geopolitical climate. Both China and the US are bullies trying to outbully the other, and eventually it's going to come to blows and someone is going to get badly hurt. One side or the other has to undergo some self-reflection and soul-searching to become "a better person" first - only then will there be someone who can "be the bigger person" and respond to the other party's bullying in ways that actually are constructive and lead to change.

David said...

It is true that people love to feel like victims, and to build their identity around that. On this point, I don't think we owe the Chinese much sympathy.

I would see Korea and the rest as great power duels. We were certainly not "bullies" when we went into Korea. All the governments involved were players. It's well to remember that war was started by the north with an unprovoked World War II-style invasion of the south in an effort to conquer it outright. I don't feel bad about that war at all.

Vietnam was different, but, FWIW, I get the impression that the Vietnamese did not come out of that war wrapping their national identity in a sense of their victimhood. They do not convey that now. If the Chinese feel like victims today, they've chosen that.

I'm not advocating sanctions or war or anything else on the part of the US vis-a-vis China.