Trita Parsi’s Three-Card Monte Argument Against Iran Sanctions


Trita Parsi is never at a loss to provide excuses for Iran or explanations for how U.S. and Western policies toward Iran are mistaken. If you believe Parsi, those policies are even the source of conflict. Parsi’s latest argument appears at the Boston Review Online. Titled “Blunt Instrument: Sanctions Don’t Promote Democratic Change,” the article states near its start,

The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing UN Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.

It could be that various foreign policy establishment figures hope that an additional benefit of sanctions over some unexpected term might be economic, thus, in turn, governing destabilization of the Iranian regime, but there is abundant reason to hold such a view as no more than a happy fantasy of some best case outcome. Certainly, there is no evidence that the sanctions are “aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime.” Certainly, public policy, openly, repeatedly, across international boundaries, foreign minister coffee tables, and IAEA boardroom tables is – and has been discussed since the last Presidential election – as sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to abandon any efforts toward development of a nuclear weapons program. Arguing against that policy is harder, though not impossible – Parsi does it – so this time he tries a different tack. Though he acknowledges the “official” objective (wink, wink – not the real one), he claims there are entirely unspecified “hints” that their aim is really quite other. In this article, rather than argue against the actual policy of Iran sanctions, Parsi makes up a policy, and argues against it.

Parsi proceeds to cite a series of sources – from a “widely cited study by Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliot,” to “[s]ecurity expert Robert Pape,” Clifton Morgan, Navin Bapat, and Valentin Krustev and their TIES study, and “[e]conomist Mats Lundahl.” In each case the study or source places a limiting number – a significantly high 34% in the case of the starting Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliot – on the success of limited or total economic sanctions. In each case, then, Parsi relies upon the currently named authority to argue for limited expectations in the use of economic sanctions to achieve democratic change – which is not, to remind, the policy of the United States or the West. In each case, Parsi moves on to another authority in order to cast doubt on the success rate suggested in the previous study. Each previous study is relied on to establish a rate of failure in the use of economic sanctions (to achieve democratic change), but its reliability is only trusted in establishing failure – the next study is then employed to cast doubt on the success rate suggested by the previous study, which, in each case, is trusted in arguing for failure, but not trusted, according to the same procedures by which the study was performed, in providing evidence for and analysis of success.

There is a card trick I learned as a child in which the gullible participant is asked to remove, view, and replace a card of the deck. Then, through a series of excluding questions directed at the participant – intended to suggest the process of divination – the performer of the trick is able lead the participant, through, in fact, an implicit process of elimination, to unknowingly make clear to the trickster what the card must be. The card trick takes its performer exactly where he wishes to go.

By the time we get to South Africa, Lundahl has given Parsi reason to doubt once again.

Thus, even the most widely cited case of sanctions’ success is, at best, debatable.

There will come a day on this earth – I don’t know when – when it will be impossible to find someone willing to debate something. Until then, everything is, at least in principle, “debatable,” though there must be some standard beyond one cited disputant for “at best.”

In the end, Parsi reveals his tell. He has oddly misrepresented the objective of the sanctions policy against Iran. For what reason?

Additional research is needed on the apparent inverse correlation between broad economic sanctions and democratization. The existing data, however, suggest that states and indigenous pro-democracy groups should be cautious about using economic sanctions as a tool in their struggles against authoritarian regimes. The data not only show that dictatorships faced with sanctions tend to enhance their grip on power, but also that successful cases of democratization have overwhelmingly occurred in the absence of broad economic sanctions. While the evidence may present an inconvenient reality for national legislatures poised to use sanctions to look tough and appear to “do something”—regardless of the actual consequences—indigenous pro-democracy groups should have no illusions about the impact of broad economic warfare on their prospects. [Emphasis added]

Parsi’s is an argument aimed at a very particular audience. (I truly love the ideological invocation of “indigenous.”) It is aimed at Iranian pro-democracy forces within Iran, seeking to separate them from the Western sanctions policy, with the hope, thereby, of undermining it.

Though I suppose that’s debatable.


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