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Applying the Lessons of South Africa Sanctions to Iran

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"My basic approach is that sanctions have a limited place in international diplomacy or pressure," says F.W. de Klerk, the former president of South Africa who presided over the end of the apartheid regime and the dismantling of the country's nuclear weapons. Discussing whether sanctions are a useful tool of statecraft, de Klerk observed, "In the case of South Africa, it kept us on our toes. It halted economic growth, but it hurt the black population much more than the white population. It didn't help those who it was intended to help, it actually harmed them more than it harmed the intended victims of the sanctions."

De Klerk's comments, delivered earlier this month at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, may be useful in assessing the utility of broad sanctions against Iran. Proponents of Iran sanctions cite the case of South Africa as an example of a successful sanctions regime against a state that transitioned to a democracy and subsequently dismantled its nuclear weapons. But out of the 35 authoritarian states that have transitioned to democracies, South Africa is the only one that did so under the weight of broad economic sanctions.

However, according to de Klerk, "sanctions at times delayed reform. In our case the biggest change agent, which in many respects made nonsense of the apartheid, was economic growth and development. Economic growth and development created an impetus in black education. Because of economic growth and development, so many black universities were created. By the 1990s there were more black students in universities than white students. But economic sanctions twisted our economy."

According to economist Mats Lundahl, many of the sanctions imposed on South Africa depressed the industrial sector and actually perpetuated the dominance of a skilled labor force led by whites. Lundahl argues that if industrial markets were allowed to flourish, the expansion of its labor market would naturally prompt a quicker end to the apartheid regime.

For Iran, some analysts have observed a similar phenomenon. CNN's Fareed Zakaria has assessed that the sanctions' "basic effect has been to weaken civil society and strengthen the state" and that "the other effects of the sanctions has been that larger and larger parts of the economy are now controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard - the elite corps of the armed forces." Akbar Ganji, the popular dissident writer, argued that, by imposing sanctions "the unemployment rate in Iran will increase by millions, poverty will be expanded all over the country and the middle class will merge into the lower class." And if the objective of sanctions is to create a revolutionary situation in which democracy will arise, "an economic crisis will marginalize the process of transition to democracy by wiping out the middle class as the main player in this process" and ultimately fail in bringing about its intended changes.

In the case of South Africa under apartheid, there is also significant evidence that sanctions actually were a motivating factor in the regime's decision to build nuclear weapons in the first place, rather than being the force behind its dismantlement.

According to de Klerk, "sanctions force nations to become inward looking. Suddenly if the world grows back from them, they take hands and form fists and they say who the hell is the United States to tell us what to do? They don't understand our problems."

A U.S. Special National Intelligence Estimate from October 1974 attributed the South African leadership's decision to pursue nuclear weapons to "its growing feeling of isolation and helplessness, perceptions of major military threat, and desires for regional prestige." Intensifying South Africa's security concerns, was the mounting tension around its boarders with Soviet backed Cuban forces in Angola, coupled with the newly imposed U.N. arms embargo which aimed to weaken its military might, with an emphasis on its nuclear program.

Apartheid South Africa's growing distrust of its neighbors, doubt over the intentions of the West, particularly in regard to its military and its further isolation from the international community, are believed to be the driving forces behind the South African leadership's decision to develop the bomb.

Sanctions, said de Klerk, "helped us build 6.5 atomic bombs. All that money--billions and billions of dollars which went into our nuclear armament program, into our uranium enrichment programs... All that could have been used for [other] further development."

De Klerk also had a telling message to consider with respect to a country like Iran that has been under international sanctions for decades that have not produced intended results. "Unless sanctions can throttle a country, countries will find ways and means to circumvent those sanctions," he explained, "And I believe if sanctions don't succeed for the purpose its established with in two or three years, there should be a re-think and it should be admitted that sanctions have failed in bring about the change for which it was intended."