Sanctions on Russia are folly more than policy

Explosive growth Since the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, the number of centrifuges increased manifold
Explosive growth Since the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, the number of centrifuges increased manifold

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognises only five countries as nuclear weapons States: China, France, Russia, UK and the US. Article 6 of the treaty imposes a legal obligation on the five to negotiate complete nuclear disarmament. In an advisory opinion in 1996, the World Court strengthened the normative force of this by concluding that the five have the obligation to bring their good-faith negotiations to a swift conclusion. India and Pakistan are not NPT signatories and thus have no such nuclear disarmament obligations. When they conducted their combined total of 11 nuclear tests in 1998, both had also explicitly rejected the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty banning nuclear tests. Yet the UN Security Council censured the tests and imposed sanctions on India and Pakistan. The five NPT-licit nuclear powers are also, of course, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5). Not one of them has been sanctioned for violating Article 6 obligations to eliminate their nuclear weapons. In effect, therefore, the nuclear outlaws sat in judgment, convicted and imposed punishment on the law-abiding. By now, both India and Pakistan have been more or less accepted as de facto nuclear weapons possessing States.

Libya and Iran: success for sanctions?
Against this formidable list of non-sanctions, dubious sanctions and the failure of sanctions, the list of successful outcomes of sanctions policies is thin and patchy. Sanctions advocacy relies on an ideological faith in the instrument quite disconnected from the mass of evidence since before World War II — Italy in Abyssinia — that point to their futility rather than utility.

Against the grain of my argument and analysis, some might posit the apparent successes of sanctions in curbing the nuclear weapons ambitions of Libya in 2003 and Iran last year. Muammar Gaddafi walked away from the nuclear weapons path in December 2003. The Bush administration was quick to claim the Libyan renunciation of the nuclear option as a tangible success of its Iraq war policy. However, many Arabs concluded just as plausibly that as a result of the difficult insurgency in Iraq after the war, it is Washington that became more receptive to longstanding Libyan overtures and signals for an end to the confrontation. Thus both versions agree on the war being the dealmaker, but for opposite reasons.

In an interview in November 2011, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the highest-ranking member of Iran’s political elite living in the US, notes that since the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, “the number of centrifuges increased eight times. Instead of one enrichment facility in 2006, Iran now possesses two facilities. Additionally, the fact the unilateral US sanctions are not readily reversible exacerbates Iran’s scepticism about Washington’s real intentions behind sanctions and removes any incentives for cooperation with the West”.

When Iran agreed to the interim deal on 24 November 2013 to scale back its weapons-related activities and equipment, many Americans hailed it as proof of the success of the toughened sanctions. According to investigative analyst Gareth Porter, however, the weapons component of Iran’s largely civilian nuclear programme did not amount to more than some weapons-related research from the late 1990s to 2003. Earlier deals offered by Tehran had been turned down by Washington. The result? Iran’s centrifuges multiplied from 164 in 2003 (when Iran’s offer of a freeze as part of a grand bargain was spurned by the Bush administration) and 3,000 in 2005 to 19,000 in 2013 (although only 11,000 were useable) and a stockpile of 8,000 kg of enriched uranium.

Some success for sanctions. Mousavian concluded that the November 2013 interim deal did not represent Iran’s capitulation under crippling sanctions. Rather, it was the result of the election of a new president in Tehran keen to explore a rapprochement with the EU and US, and the shift in the US red line from “no enrichment” to “no bomb”. Another informed Iran observer, Trita Parsi, also argues that it was reaching out to Tehran, not crippling it through sanctions, which brought about the nuclear deal — and it could have happened much earlier.

What of the argument that sanctions were responsible for Iranian people voting for the moderate Hassan Rouhani to succeed the erratic and often intemperate Mahmoud Ahmadenijad as president? The self-validating belief that the pain of sanctions was responsible for the Iranians’ election choice of the moderate Rouhani is even more fanciful, says Parsi.

“The idea that the US has the ability to engineer the outcome of elections in a country that is thousands of miles away, with which it has no trade, where it has had no diplomatic presence for 35 years, and where only a handful of current US diplomats have ever served or even visited, expands the concept of arrogance to new and exciting frontiers,” he says.

This May, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a gas deal in Beijing to make China the second biggest market for Russian gas after Germany. The 30-year, $400 billion deal will boost bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2020. China and Russia are united in suspicions of US intentions and actions. Russia’s bilateral trade with the US is a modest $26 billion, compared to $370 billion with the EU. Some powerful European businesses would have their interests badly damaged with meaningful sanctions with bite.

As the centre of gravity of the emerging global order shifts east and south, the West’s addiction to sanctions provides a powerful incentive to non-western countries to develop long-term alternative financial institutions for parking their money and moving them internationally. Putin plays on this sentiment by using the language of being under sanctions attack from the West. Looking at the world from a BRICS-centric lens, all efforts to use US-EU dominance of the international financial system as a lever against other major actors will deepen others’ perceptions of the US-centric financial order as a security threat. The sooner the BRICS lead an international movement against the folly of sanctions, the better.

With leaders in India and Russia who have been subjected to deeply hypocritical sanctions by a self-righteous West, they should have two powerfully motivated and personally committed heads of government to do so.


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