GIGA Working Paper

Sanctions against Iran's Regime in Vain

For years, the international community has imposed sanctions on Iran. During the Ahmadinejad administration, these had especially severe consequences for the country. However, the regime persisted in the face of growing pressure. Oliver Borszik explains why.

Since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, all sorts of sanctions have been imposed on the country. During Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, from 2005 to 2013, Iran became one of the most sanctioned states worldwide. Intense sanctions and the Ahmadinejad administration’s misguided socioeconomic policies severely harmed the country. Crude oil exports decreased sharply, the inflation rate increased, domestic production fell, unemployment grew, the currency decayed, and the prices of consumer goods rose. Yet this downturn did not result in the regime’s downfall.

So how did the regime manage to endure the sanctions? This paper draws on the literature on sanctions and their effects, on research on the strategies of authoritarian rule, and on country-specific sources, including Farsi-language documents and semistructured interviews with high-level Iranian and non-Iranian experts and decision makers in the issue area of Iran sanctions. [...]

In light of the question of under which conditions sanctions are effective, sanctions researchers have assessed sanctions’ successes and failures mostly from the sender perspective: the sanction actors, the measures taken, and the goals pursued. In this way, they have analyzed the effectiveness of unilateral and multilateral sanctions (Bapat/Morgan 2009) and of targeted and comprehensive sanctions (Drezner 2011; Hufbauer et al. 2007, Lektzian/Souva 2007; Peksen/Drury 2010, Portela 2014), as well as the importance of different sanction objectives such as democratization or nonproliferation (von Soest/Wahman 2014).

Researchers have also studied the influence of commercially motivated “sanctions busters” or politically motivated “black knights” and their assistance to the sanctioned countries (Early 2011). The effects of sanctions on regime persistence have also been investigated from the perspective of the targeted and mostly nondemocratic regimes. For example, Allen or Escribà-Folch and Wright have argued that regime type matters. Different nondemocratic regimes adopt different strategies, such as increasing government expenditures or taking repressive measures to immunize their rule against the impact of external sanctions, and such tactics mediate the effects of sanctions on regime persistence (Allen 2008: 917; Escribà-Folch/Wright 2010: 336). How external sanctions influence the targeted regime’s power structure, however, has remained largely unexplored.

The focus on target countries and their reactions to the external measures is compatible with the premises of authoritarianism researchers. The latter argue that different regime types utilize different strategies to stabilize their rule (Escribà-Folch 2012; Gandhi/Przeworski 2007). Gerschewski (2013) has categorized these survival tactics and holds that alongside repression and co-optation, self-legitimizing strategies may thwart the danger of destabilization stemming from both domestic oppositional groups and from external threats. Due to the difficulty of gathering appropriate data, the policy performance of different nondemocratic regime types and the effects of this performance on regime persistence have remained mostly uninvestigated within this research strand (Croissant/Wurster 2013: 3).

The comprehensive international sanctions imposed on Iran provoked a debate among analysts and experts in the media, at think tanks (for example Bassiri Tabrizi/Hanau Santini 2012; International Crisis Group 2013, Khajehpour et al. 2013 or Portela 2014), and in academic journals (for example Majidpour 2013; Maloney 2010 or Takeyh/Maloney 2011) on the consequences of these sanctions for the country.

While the literature mainly addresses the efficacy of sanctions, the debate also points out that Iran’s leadership has countered the sanctions through regime-based strategies (International Crisis Group 2013: 15–18; Khajehpour et al. 2013; Majidpour 2013: 11–14; Maloney 2010: 142–144; Takeyh/Maloney 2011: 1309). The combined effects of the external and internal factors on regime persistence, however, remain uninvestigated for the most part.

This paper seeks to fill this gap by reconstructing the interplay between the United States, UNSC, and EU sanctions and the sanction-tailored regime strategies to promote the nuclear program and to maintain intra-elite cohesion during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. In doing so, it explains how the regime was able to persist in the face of intensifying sanctions.

Read on: Oliver Borszik, International Sanctions against Iran under President Ahmadinejad: Explaining Regime Persistence, GIGA Working Paper, No. 260, Oktober 2014

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