Ben Smith: No need to attack Iran, the sanctions are working

Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 2:48 p.m.

In 1998 I spent several months living and studying in Iran. Back then there were no ATMs and with a single exception I found no merchants who could take payment with Western credit cards.

As a result, I lived on the cash I had brought with me, as many $100 bills as I could fold into a money belt. When I needed Iranian rials, I'd take a shared taxi down to the bazaar to trade dollars.

Because I was in Iran as part of a formal "cultural exchange" arranged by the then-president Mohammed Khatami, I was given special permission to trade dollars at the bazaar rate instead of the official rate. Basically, this meant that instead of having to go to a state-run bank to trade dollars at 2,500 rials per dollar, I could go down to the bazaar and get the rate merchants used for their own trades; about 5,500 per dollar.

Last week, as a result of sanctions levied against Iran, the formal exchange rate topped 32,500 rials per dollar, the weakest the rial has ever been.

What does this tell us? First, the sanctions are carrying serious bite, radically increasing the price for imported goods into Iran and spiking inflation. But the second implication is the more important one. There will almost certainly be a point at which Iranians will be unwilling to bear the economic costs of their leaders' nuclear program.

It is nearly impossible to say when that will be, or how it will take shape. But it is worth recalling that the years immediately before the Iranian Revolution, in 1979, were preceded by another bout of mega-inflation. That inflationary period eventually drove an unlikely collection of social groups (including both radical students and conservative religious leaders) together against the Shah.

The proximate goal of current sanctions is to convince Iran's leadership to end the nuclear program. The quieter longer-term goal is regime change, and it is worth keeping in mind what effects our policies are likely to have on that outcome.

An attack, by any country, on Iran's nuclear facilities will probably drive many ordinary Iranians to rally around their government. Continued economic hardship will drive them away from it, raising the likelihood of uprisings like those of 2009, which the regime could quell only with massive use of force. Sooner or later, as in 1979, too many Iranians will be in the streets for force to work. Iranians deserve better government than they have, and to the extent we wish to help them get it we ought to support policies that will help.

Ben Smith is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. His book, "Hard Times in the Lands of Plenty: Oil Politics in Iran and Indonesia," was published in 2007.

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