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Maryam Zar Headshot

Sanctions and Sabers -- The Insidious Cycle of War

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Ever confuse Iran and Iraq? Well, you may begin to -- if history repeats itself in the way it looks to be headed at the moment.

In case you've already forgotten, the U.S. wrapped up its "involvement" in Iraq just last month, complete with a ceremony at Baghdad International Airport to mark the solemn occasion -- nine years after the start of a frivolous war. With a military band playing pipes, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was on hand to assure troops that their sacrifice "had not been in vain." He pledged that the war, though wrought with pain and horror for both sides, has given way to a new era of opportunity for a free Iraq.

But a look at Iraq beyond the American controlled airport and its attendant Green Zone, shows a crippled country, beholden to regional and global powers with little opportunity and none of the trappings of freedom. As the U.S. military departs Iraqi soil it leaves a nation in tatters. The Iraqi populace is no better off today than it was in 2003, but with a new henchman at its helm that is perhaps less amenable to the U.S. than the Saddam of earlier times. To be sure, Saddam was a brutal dictator that represented the interests of the few, but Maliki is no more the even-handed leader of a dispassionate Shiite majority. Sectarian violence has persistently rocked Iraq over the last two weeks.

As the U.S. departs leaving Iraq with a new order, Iraqi's suffer through a few hours of electricity at best during the day, and unrelenting violence that permeates Iraqi life. Crumbling roads and buildings, accompanied by an ever failing infrastructure, presided over by ineffective government appointees loyal to various factions in a relentless fight over influence, have made Iraq a haven for extremism. Corruption abounds at the cost of ordinary Iraqi's who have endured the aftermath of the American invasion with horror, which quickly replaced the initial hope they were promised. As a new year dawns, Iraqis contend with water shortages, food shortages, medical shortages, gas shortages, telephone service shortages -- and unrelenting shortages of opportunity. The economy is in ruin, while trash piles up on the streets with no local governance that is consistent, and one in charge to make a difference in people's lives.

Iraq's national government is ineffectual and, since having been elected, its parliament has met for less than a few hours in aggregate to tend to the work of the people. The task of governing Iraq has dwindled to a tribal power-play with brokers making back-room deals to suit the new elite, rather than to set Iraq on the promised road to freedom and opportunity. The goal of establishing a Democracy in Iraq, as the war was billed, has given way to the end-game of leaving before the new rancorous government yanks diplomatic immunity from U.S. troops for bad deeds committed on Iraqi soil. Hence the rush to pack the flag, give a peppy speech sighting lofty ideals, and gunning the engines for the unremitting convoy out of Iraq.

All told, $800 billion and more than 4,000 U.S. deaths were sacrificed for naught. As a nation, we have demanded the service of more than 1.5 million American troops and presided over more than a quarter of a million Iraqi lives lost over the last nine years, along with the wholesale destruction of a nation with an estimated rebuilding cost of $30 billion. It is difficult to argue that we leave Iraq a better place than the way we found it. It is also difficult to argue that we achieved any of our initial goals. We went in under the guise of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction -- of which there was never any evidence. Then we said we wanted to bring freedom and opportunity to Iraq. But widows and orphans litter Iraqi streets from the cities to rural towns where hopelessness and a grim struggle for survival promise to be the cornerstone of life in post-U.S. Iraq. Only history will dare tell the truth about the Iraq we have left behind.

Surprisingly however, no sooner have we encased the flag in Baghdad, that we are drumming a dull beat toward another war -- this time, in a battle ground just next door: Iran.

Albert Einstein once famously said "one cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." Today, just as the Bush administration did in the run-up to the Iraq war, the Obama administration is insisting that diplomatic pressure is the key to the battle against Iran's nuclear quest, while unmistakably allowing the sparks of war to be stoked.

Have we learned nothing from our misadventure in Iraq?

Now again, as if the reckless losses of our recent past are a distant memory, we are pressuring Iran, just as we did with Iraq, to come clean on its nuclear technology and succumb to international sanctions or face more dire threats. On New Year's Eve, President Obama signed new, tougher sanctions into law debilitating Iran from using its banking system on the international stage. The intended effect is to disable Iran from selling its crude in world markets thereby choking its income stream and preventing the regime from funding the development of its nuclear program. At the same time, the U.S. is moving military assets into and around the Persian Gulf as its counters Iran's threats of closing the Strait of Hormuz with the intimidating specter of frigates within eye-sight, and the famous mantra that "all options are on the table." As if written for a movie manuscript, one of those very same frigates rescued an Iranian fishing vessel, and its grateful crew of smiling Iranian mariners, from the claws of pirates in the very same waters from which they are beaming their fangs. Just a few days later, as if to scuff-off any banter about the good-natured rescue, Iran announced it had sentenced a former U.S. Marine of Iranian origin to death, for having collaborated with a hostile country.

In the meantime, the Obama administration is working hard on the front lines of international diplomacy to get the rest of the world to join its sanctions bandwagon. Given the current global economic climate, that is proving to be hard work at a time when economies of the world are failing, and cheap crude is an ace in the hole. The more pressure Iran is under to sell-off its oil for income, the lower it will be willing to price it; and that necessarily means that there will be buyers -- from as far east as India and China to as far west as France and Italy -- all of whom have still failed to assent to pleas on the part of the U.S. to turn down Iranian oil.

Russia has indicated resistance to the new round of sanctions saying they would undermine global efforts at peacefully resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions. India has said it will be looking for new and greater U.S. concessions for turning away from Iranian oil. China has indicated that it will continue buying Iranian oil, especially at lower prices. Across Europe, a deafening delay in assenting to the new sanctions proposed by the U.S. is no surprise as regional finances leave no room for strategic decisions designed to punish a lucrative trading partner -- like Iran. At the same inopportune time, Italy, with large economic ties to Iran, has seen its credit rating plummet to BBB+, and France which is a prominent petrochemical partner to Iran, has seen its credit rating downgraded to AA+. As they are being urged by the U.S. to agree to tougher sanctions against Iran, Europe must be scrutinizing its bottom line before it fires a shot at its own proverbial foot, to please the Americans. All the while, the U.S., struggling through its own economic crisis, is busy handing out financial concessions and expending political capital to persuade friends and foes alike to back its Iran strategy -- misguided as it may be.

A generation ago the U.S. placed its first round of sanctions against Iraq. Those left a population malnourished and disempowered, and angry at the U.S. Twenty years later when the U.S. invaded Iraq to supposedly liberate them, we were met with a resentful population that was distrusting of our motives. The bitter battle that ensued left a nation that was unmistakably once the cradle of civilization, in ruin. Today, Iraq is comprised largely of a hungry and uneducated populace that is willing to turn more readily to extremism than to the hard work of building a democracy.

Yet we are walking quickly toward risking the same outcome in Iran.

Last week, a fifth Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated on the streets of Tehran in less than two years, under curious circumstances. While the U.S. placidly condemns the targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, presumably by covert operations on the part of a regional government with the avowed goal of debilitating Iran's quest for nuclear technology and the capacity to carry out its threats, we stop short of calling them criminal or condemning them forcefully. Each time we fail to be outraged by these assassinations, we tacitly flash a green light, and risk looking like the untrustworthy Americans again. If we are seen to be condoning extra judicial killings, how can we claim the moral high-ground of democracy and the rule of law? Similarly, if we sanction an innocent population one more time, so soon after the failings of the last set we imposed on Iraq just before we unleashed our bombs on them, how can we expect the trust of a people that have historically looked to us for support? As favorable as the U.S. is in the eyes of ordinary Iranians, protracted sanctions will chip away at that favorable rating. Can we afford that in the Middle East?

If the U.S.'s intended goal is to debilitate the Iranian regime by choking its income stream, it won't work. They will milk every incoming penny from willing buyers near and far, and starve their people in order to stay in power. They will use zealous religion and unyielding propaganda on a starving populace to ride out the storm and be better entrenched on the other side. If the goal is to stop their nuclear ambitions, we will not succeed since that ambition is largely fueled by a sense of entitlement as Iranians look across the region and see the strongest of their neighbors being those which are nuclear-enabled. If our goal is to convince Iranians to rise up against their government out of hunger, they will not. The last revolution was staged by an empowered class of upwardly mobile intellectuals who had jobs and food on the table before they decided to go out and protest the hand that fed them.

Feeding the hungry and helping educate Iran's youth will destabilize the regime much quicker than sanctions ever will.