Which is why the mullahs launched this recent initiative. They know, and fear, that if the West persists on its present and agreed course, they face sanctions so serious that their rule, already unpopular, might be in jeopardy. The very fact that Iran is desperately trying to change the subject, change the venue and shift the burden onto the United States shows how close the mullahs believe we are to achieving major international pressure on them. ~Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post

Now that there may be the slightest possibility of finding a way out of what was beginning to look like another inexorable countdown to conflict with still another country that does not threaten the United States, all the predictable warning bells are being sounded. When the substance of Mr. Krauthammer’s preferred policy of confrontation meets resistance, he complains about the procedural maneuvers of opponents, as if the administration’s drive to invade Iraq did not make cynical use of multilateral and unilateral strategies as and when it became useful for achieving the goal of war with Iraq and regime change. When it has come to North Korea, the administration and its supporters have preferred multilateralism to avoid singular responsibility for failing to prevent North Korean proliferation, recognising at once that it could not be stopped once direct negotiations had been ruled out entirely. Once again multilateralism vis-a-vis Iran provides the cloak of international credibility and diffused responsibility that they once doffed with such disgust where Iraq was concerned.

Now that direct negotiations might defuse the so-called crisis, the eager voice of interventionists cries, “No!” What does he propose instead? A push for sanctions that will supposedly put such pressure on the government in Tehran such that the regime will run the risk of falling to popular indignation. In theory, the danger of losing power would compel the regime to capitulate on the question of nuclear proliferation, whereupon the sanctions would presumably end (or not, if regime change remains the ultimate goal of this administration, which it is). Where, pray, has the sanctions strategy ever succeeded in destabilising a government’s rule?

Iraq is the obvious example of the failure of sanctions to accomplish much of anything with respect to the stability of the regime, except inflicting horrible deprivation and death on the Iraqi people. As the jingoes themselves were only too happy to claim, sanctions did not facilitate regime change or anything of the kind but helped to entrench Hussein in power (all the more reason why the illegal and punitive sanctions should have been lifted long, long before Mr. Bush ever came to office). After 20 years of isolation from some Western countries, Libya finally abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear program in exchange for restoring normal relations, but what sanctions did not accomplish was the end or even the endangerment of the control of the Gadhafi regime.

Typically, countries hit hard by sanctions do not respond in the ways that the governments imposing the sanctions expect–instead of focusing their resentment at their own government for allegedly bringing the sanctions upon them and working to change or destabilise the current regime or force the government’s hand on policy, they routinely turn their resentment at the outside forces creating the hardship. The majority will conclude, not entirely unreasonably, that the people imposing the sanctions are the ones inflicting the damage on their country. Especially when it is an issue bound up with questions of national sovereignty and prestige, which the development of nuclear technology certainly is to a higher degree than normal, a proud nation will view attempts to interfere with what is properly an internal affair very dimly indeed. International sanctions produce the perfect atmosphere for a dictatorial or other oppressive regime (or indeed any kind of government) to invoke myths of national victimhood and/or innocence (and the more powerful those myths are and the more they involve memories of resisting Western colonialism, both of which are the case in Iran) and for the regime to portray itself as a champion of the nation being hard-pressed by arrogant foreigners.

Americans have frequently responded in precisely this way whenever confronted by foreign criticism, and Mr. Bush has been a great beneficiary of this resentment of foreign threats real and perceived (he has fumbled so badly on immigration policy because he has no meaningful conception that his constituents see immigration as yet another one of these threats, albeit of a different type, or rather he has no desire to grant this view any consideration because he views it as fundamentally un-American). The current Iranian government, and Ahmadinejad himself, will benefit in similar fashion, just as Hussein and Milosevic’s rule was routinely reinforced by near-universal outside hostility to them and to Iraq and Serbia respectively.

Imposing sanctions on Iran can only be the desirable course if we wish to see the most militant and combative elements of the Iranian regime strengthened as a prelude to justifying resorting to military strikes. Mr. Krauthammer does wish exactly this, so it is no surprise that he wants to see Washington push forward for sanctions. The Europeans are right to balk at this move, and this would be a goldern opportunity for a domestic opposition leader to support direct negotiations with Iran.

So long as negotiations are contingent on the commitment to military action if they “fail” (i.e., if they do not force Iran to concede a nuclear program that it is never going to concede), Krauthammer’s acceptance of negotiations is yet another suggestion for a tactical maneuver to pave the way for a military strike on Iran. Washington should negotiate with Iran, but not with the expectation that these negotiations are designed to make Iran concede on its fundamental sovereign rights; such concessions no Iranian government could reasonably be expected to make. We would be setting ourselves up for another Rambouillet and another pretext for war.