Let Sanctions Work – Unless They Won’t

“Let them hate us, so long as they fear us” Roman Emperor Caligula

When Marcus Lucinius Crassus marched his Roman Legion into the desert at Carrhae to chase down the Parthians he was likely unaware that not only had he doomed himself, but also the fragile balance of power in Rome. Crassus was the third member of the first triumvirate with Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. He was the only one unaccomplished in battle – no doubt this aided in his ruin at Carrhae. While Crassus was around, neither Pompey nor Caesar could ascend to sole power. When one member of the triumvirate got too big, there were always two others to pull him down. Crude but efficient.

With Crassus gone Caesar and Pompey would inevitably square off to decide who would rule. Pompey was by all rights the greater man: richer, more beloved by the citizenry, and with a vast corps of legionnaire veterans from which to draw. Caesar, however, had the more current fighting force.

For a full recounting of the events, actually the whole of the Republic’s downfall, you might want to check out Rubicon by Tom Holland – excellent read. Here’s the short version. Civil war ensued and the two were at it. It was nip and tuck and a war of attrition. After some maneuvering the two finally met up near the Greek city of Pharsalus. Ceasar was hemmed in and running out of money, food, and native support – Caesar was running out of time. He needed to fight, it was the only way he could win. All Pompey had to do was kill the clock and let Caesar’s legions expire. The sanctions were working. Eventually Caesar would be finished.

Unfortunately for Pompey, the war hawks in his cabinet (Senators who wanted glorious victory instead of a slow but steady win) demanded a battle. Pompey relented – and lost. Caesar’s men were outnumbered two-to-one, but they were very good at what they did.

The point is, sometimes you really should let the sanctions work. When the only way the other side can possibly win is if you join the battle, then you should not. It is important to note though that sanctions will not always work. It depends on the motivations and needs of the opponent. In Caesar’s case he had a starving army. The human body cannot hold out forever without food and they would eventually have capitulated.

If we fast forward a few thousand years we find ourselves in another Pompey the Great moment – perhaps. The US has been pushing for increasingly harsh economic sanctions against the Iranian regime over their continued Uranium enrichment – a clear indication that they are working toward building nuclear weapons. I would gladly say “give the sanctions time to work” – but in this case I do not at all believe they can work.

While Caesar was working toward world domination, which required victory over Pompey, Iran is merely working toward a weapon development. They know that the instant they “go nuclear” the rules of the game will change forever. This is something they can do in the midst of sanctions. Also, Caesar was cut off, Iran is not. Russia and China are still backing the Iranians, for personal economic reasons.

Finally, for the sanctions to have any plausible viability they must cause an end to the Iranian weapons program. Since the regime has shown it is not interested in turning things off just yet, one must assume that the only valid end-game (for sanctions) is an internal uprising that overthrows the government and ends the program. That is, the sanctions can only be seen as a threat to the regime if worsening economic conditions (and they are bad in Iran) will ultimately lead to popular uprising. More to the point, the Iranian regime has to believe that sanctions and economic calamity could lead to popular uprising. I suspect it is this last point that they find utterly fraudulent, and therefore will not relent.

“Why is that?” you ask. Well, we had an opportunity for popular uprising to overthrow the government in June of 2009. The Iranian street was mobilized and ready to defy of the ruling Mullahs. The Obama administration’s response? Well, it began with mostly silence with plenty of “no comment” lines. Eventually press secretary Robert Gibbs gave the clarion call of unity amongst free people with “This is a debate inside of Iran for Iranians.” He was later to be outdone by Obama himself who said “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling.”

That’s it folks – game over. With those two comments in the midst of a potential uprising the Obama administration forever sealed the fate of sanctions. They will not work in Iran. The regime has no reason to believe the US would support a popular uprising. The populace that would rise up has already done so and been squashed. Why would they chance it again when they know help won’t be coming from the US?

Now I do not mean any of this to indicate that I prefer an immediate strike on Iran. (I might, but that’s not the point.) Clearly there are massive pains involved in doing so. I’m simply noting that sanctions are unlikely to work and that arguments in favor of more sanctions for the purpose of preventing a nuclear Iran seem a bit weak.

But who knows? Maybe I’ve missed something altogether. Maybe there’s something lurking out there that will cause another uprising. For now though, I doubt it. The sanctions will not work.

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