Sanction won't work against Iran; let's increase trade instead


n the interminable efforts to halt Iran's uranium enrichment program, the Iranian regime has once again demonstrated its recalcitrance. The recent pronouncement of Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that policymakers have reached a "dead end" appears prophetic. Bureaucrats in Brussels, Whitehall and Washington surely are scrambling back to their drawing boards and are likely looking to "crippling" sanctions as the next step.

History has proven, however, that while sanctions rob the regime of capabilities and resources, they fail to alter its intentions. Rather than using this hackneyed tool, the Obama administration should take the opposite approach and remove restrictions on trade and investment.


Understanding why requires putting Iran in strategic perspective. Doing so entails thinking creatively about a U.S. vision for Iran as a country 15-20 years from now, and about how Iran fits within the greater Middle East and Asia. The two options debated in public - an enhanced sanctions regime or a military strike -are ossified and lack creativity.

Both options fail at the strategic level. Neither charts a path for Iran's evolution into a stakeholder of the international order, employs American commerce and ideals to attack Tehran's weaknesses or leverages the greatest strategic asset the West possesses: the vast number of Iranians who have stood courageously in the face of a brutal regime to demand that their voices be heard. The conventional options fail to recognize that Iran's future lies not with its regime but with its people.


The use of sanctions is predicated on two key assumptions: that sanctions will weaken the regime and that the regime wants to allow U.S. investment into the country. These assumptions are erroneous, and one need only look to Havana and Pyongyang to see their flaws. Rather, sanctions play into the hands of the regime, as they deprive the Iranian people of options for economic growth and development, leaving them prey to the diktat of the government. The regime's efforts during the spring crackdown to seal the world off from Twittering protesters proves that Tehran is terrified both of what commercial relations with the United States can do to the social fabric of the country and of the inevitable demands that will emerge.

Their fear is justified - they no doubt see that the free movement of goods, ideas, and people has weakened the vestiges of authoritarianism, from Latin America to the former Soviet Union. International trade is a cancer to authoritarian regimes because it erodes absolute authority from within. It can provide individuals with dignity and opportunity and offers hope for future generations.

Thus, a new American strategy would orient economic relations with Iran to the benefit of the United States and attack the source of the Iranian regime's power. Such an approach would focus on private sector development in Iran, allowing for U.S. investment in the country and for the provision of capital to Iranian small- and medium-size enterprises. Private sector development is a key engine for economic growth and a key driver of the development of liberal democracies.

The evolution of the Vietnamese economy after the United States lifted its sanctions regime demonstrates the transformative power of commercial relations: Vietnamese GDP, per capita income, employment and productivity have grown exponentially. Since the implementation of a bilateral trade agreement in 2001, U.S.-Vietnamese relations have been constructive and mutually beneficial; capital, trade, and economic engagement succeeded where an engagement strategy focused on bullets and bombs did not.

To be sure, commercial engagement is fraught with complications. There is a risk that the regime could seize incoming capital; the U.S. government would need to enhance its efforts to deprive the regime and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps of assets through robust dual-use sanctions (targeting civilian products that may have military applications); and there will need to be enhanced monitoring of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. But these risks are no more severe than the side effects of increased sanctions - and much less severe than those of a military approach.

Policy is about outcomes, not inputs. Thirty years of acrimonious relations and failed attempts to change the Iranian regime's behavior instill zero confidence in the efficacy of a new round of sanctions. Rather than follow the failed road map used for Cuba and North Korea, why not emulate the relative success of Vietnam?

After decades of stagnation, it's time to try something different.

Michael Casey Jr. is a recent graduate of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is mca