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An Anti-Theory of Sanctions: Why an Iranian New Deal was Necessary

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While the debate over the wisdom of concluding the Iran nuclear deal continues, this article takes a slightly more involved intellectual approach to explain why an alternative to the long-standing sanctions was likely inevitable.

This is especially the case if there is a sincere desire to see Iran incorporated long-term into the global community and not simply continue to punish it as a pariah into political perpetuity. Several conceptual and theoretical explanations have been used to highlight key indicators that counteract the effectiveness of sanctions within the Middle East and how the spread of certain ideologies and social practices have impacted the success of international mediations. This microcosm analysis of the various social variables, mostly stemming from historical and political events, supports the need to judge more harshly the long-term efficacy of sanctions. It provides an analysis concerning weapons proliferation within Iran and will question the overall potential success of sanctions against such targeted states.

In an effort to provide a clearer scope of imposing sanctions against independent states, it is required to assess the overall political stratagem. According to many political theorists, the application of sanctions against various states has become the most popular alternative to military force that may otherwise lead to war. Past war efforts, however, have provided a misguided concept of the efficacy of sanctions, implying that a one-size fits all approach will produce identical results. “Sanctions — either bilateral, in conjunction with informal coalitions of like-minded countries, or through international organizations like the UN — have long been a staple of U.S. foreign policy.   Their appeal is obvious: sanctions provide an intermediate step, between normal negotiations and outright hostilities, in our attempts to a) alter the behavior of foreign states or even b) force the removal of their governments. There is a voluminous and disputatious literature on the effectiveness of sanctions.” (Baker) Put another way, the over-popularity of sanctions as a policy refuge demonstrates a lack of awareness within the international political spectrum, implying that all political arenas are the same and general applications can bring about similar change. This is simply false.

Unfortunately, it was not until the recent failures of multiple Western-imposed sanctioning projects that security theorists began to see key variables that have contributed to the lack of effectiveness within such measures. Such factors have included: considering the targeted state’s form of government; levels of state patriotism; and unilateral control. To begin with, assessing the form of government of the subjected state has proven crucial in generating success of applying sanctions. “Because of different institutional incentives, economically punishing sanctions are less likely to succeed against a nondemocratic target than against a democratic target. Sanctions increase rents. This benefits nondemocratic leaders more than democratic ones. Also, nondemocratic leaders have smaller winning coalitions, so their core constituents suffer less from sanctions than democratic leaders.” (Souva) This certainly was the case with Iran, and other targeted states with authoritarian-led regimes, in that democratic societies are human rights driven and tend to focus on the overall well-being of their societies. Democratic states in general maintain multiple parties. Majority-led parties can then petition their views by vote which can in turn push sanction compliance. On the other hand, authoritarian-led regimes like Iran lack this outlet, resulting in the authority of the government being the only and final determination of sanction negotiations, regardless of differing views, isolation, or general populace suffering.

In terms of considering state nationalism and the successful outcomes of sanctions, research has proven that applying sanctions to countries with strong nationalist perspectives will most likely fail. This mitigating context is widely seen throughout countries with strong anti-Western perspectives and can definitely be applied to the case of Iran. “Nationalism is as strong among Iranians as it is among Americans. And it is easy to imagine a similar ‘rally round the flag’ effect were the United States to face foreign pressure aimed at altering our policies. It is one of the curiosities of our foreign policy that Americans often assume that foreigners will act in ways that we ourselves never would.” (Baker) As seen with Iran, the original premise of institutionalizing sanctions was to negatively impact the country’s economy, hoping to turn the people against its own government. The reality is that the Iranian state, along with many other authoritarian countries, maintains strong anti-Western perspectives that often engender a counter-reaction to sanctioning efforts. Such countries often effectively lay blame on Western leaders for increasing levels of poverty that then contribute to the growth of stronger nationalist perspectives and thus increase the long-term resistance against Western sanctions.

Multilateralism, also explained as the concept of international control, has been identified as a contributing variable to the overall effectiveness of state-centered sanctions. Due to many economic interdictions often involving the international cooperation of surrounding states, individual compliance by other countries is required. “Multilateralism, according to Ruggie’s definition and quoted by Martin, ‘requires that states sacrifice substantial levels of flexibility in decision-making and resist short-term personal temptations in favor of long-term universal benefits.’ Effectively, international cooperation is often described as a product of national self-interest in an increasingly interdependent world.” (Golliard) Thus, multilateralism holds that independent states must not only be aware of their individual contributions but also that they sacrifice the possible individual benefits of pursuing their own interests. This is quite indicative of one of the ways the Iranian case went wrong, as some nations contributed to Iran’s resistance simply by not dismissing their own international personal benefits in order to ensure sanctioning success.

Thus, the form of government, levels of nationalism, and multilateralism are all factors to be considered when looking at the potential success (or lack thereof) of sanctions as a general phenomenon. The presence of these elements, as well as their intertwining relationships, can often undermine the overall efficacy of employing sanctions to coerce change within a subjected state like Iran. In “Thinking Strategically about Sanctions,” the author Olivier Schmitt discussed the onset of factors in deciding to introduce sanctions against a country. This especially considered the overall environment of the subjected state and how that might produce primal behaviors that would ultimately lead to future violent conflict. “And once the process is launched, studies of potential radicalization of the actors are needed. I am not here talking about a ‘path-dependency’ phenomenon. Rather, using the ‘rise to the extremes’ theory, I suggest that the beginning of sanctions imposition can have a radicalizing effect on the targeted country.” (Schmitt) Therefore prior to enforcing sanctions on such poorly-positioned states like Iran, someone should have acknowledged these negative characteristics independently and how they can lead to negative results and further disastrous outcomes.

After reviewing the conceptual shortcomings of instituting sanctions and assessing theoretical flaws, it is clear for many reasons that UN-led sanctions were arguably always going to fail majorly in pushing Iran to cease its nuclear enrichment program or soften its general anti-Western stances. In spite of multiple efforts at coercion by the U.S. and facing heavy declines in Iran’s economy, the nuclear enrichment program not only continued to exist, but the authority of the theocratic regime was able to fairly easily handle the largest public resistance against it back in 2009 with the Green Revolution. Therefore it was arguably always imperative to the future of international security that policymakers and diplomats alike began to consider alternative approaches to the subject of deterring Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. This alternative would have to be something not exclusively based on punishment and isolation but rather inclusiveness and mutual accountability and responsibility. For these reasons the new Iranian deal, even with misgivings and far from perfect, is a step of progress compared to the old long-standing sanction regime.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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