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Iran: So Did the Sanctions Work After All?

22/06/2013 21:55 BST | Updated 20/08/2013 10:12 BST

This is probably not something that I should mention in polite company, but do you think the presidential election results in Iran last weekend just might have proved that international sanctions do work after all?

In many quarters, even to suggest such an idea is close to heresy. Sanctions, according to the view widely held in international punditry circles, are a blunt instrument which inflict great misery on ordinary people while having little or no effect on the government they're supposed to be squeezing.

But just suppose that isn't the case, or at least, not always. Suppose one of the reasons why Iranians turned out in such huge numbers to vote for the most moderate of the candidates on offer, Hassan Rouhani, was that they judged he was the most likely presidential candidate to get sanctions lifted or relaxed.

If that is the case -- and I don't say the case is proved, because it's still much too early to say -- but if it is the case, then might there be implications for, say, future policy regarding Syria?

After all, if a Rouhani-led government in Tehran is more inclined to engage constructively with Western powers, then maybe there's more of a chance of finding some common ground on which to create a blueprint for the future of Syria.

So why do I make a link between sanctions and the election result, which seems to have taken most Iran analysts completely by surprise? (Hardly anyone predicted that Rouhani would emerge triumphant with more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round.)

Well, just take a look at this analysis, by Amir Paivar of the BBC Persian Service, a couple of days before the poll: "The country's economy is in its worst state for decades, with high inflation, soaring unemployment and negative growth ... The value of Iran's currency, the rial, has more than halved in a year ... [and] has led to a sharp cut in imports and raised Iran's inflation to its highest level in 18 years."

Scarcely surprising, then, that one of the first questions the new president-elect was asked by an Iranian reporter at his news conference earlier this week was about sanctions. This was his reply: "In order to reduce and resolve the problem of sanctions step by step, we will take two measures. First ... more transparency. Of course, our nuclear plans are fully transparent, but we are ready to show more transparency and make it clear for the whole world that measures of the Islamic Republic of Iran are fully in the international frames.

"Second, we will increase mutual trust between Iran and other countries. Wherever trust is to be undermined, we will attempt to restore it. I believe that mutual trust and transparency within the framework of international regulations and principles are the solution to put an end to sanctions."

Which sounds to me like a pretty good start. But this is where we have to take a step back. In Iranian politics, the president has only limited powers. The real say remains with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose intentions are as opaque as ever.

It may, however, be relevant to recall that he has in the past been reported by Iranian officials to have issued a "fatwa", or religious ruling, against the production of nuclear weapons. Western officials are reluctant to take it at face value as it does not appear to have the force of law.

Khamenei fell out with the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and presided over (or turned a blind eye to) what is widely thought to have been wholesale result-rigging at the time of the last presidential elections in 2009, to prevent a win by the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Huge protests followed, they were brutally suppressed, and Iran's overseas image suffered yet further.

This time, it was different. And it's worth wondering why. Might Khamenei and his clerical allies be prepared to allow the new president more breathing space? Rouhani is, unlike the mercurial Ahmadinejad, a cleric himself, with strong ties to Iran's powerful religious establishment. But he also knows how to engage with the West, having served as his country's top nuclear negotiator and having studied in Glasgow in the 1990s. (Some people have been wondering whether that means he speaks English with a Glasgow accent -- I don't know the answer to that, but would love to find out.)

So Iranians have elected a president who promised them a better economic future by engaging more constructively with the West. Yes, I know all about proofs and puddings and all that, but let's at least hope -- and consider where we'd be today if, instead of imposing sanctions, the West had opted for military action and chosen to bomb some of Iran's nuclear installations. I somehow doubt that Iranian voters would have chosen a Presidential candidate who advocated better relations with the West.

By the way, you may be interested to know that I've started a summertime walk along the length of the River Thames, from the source to the estuary. I'm producing little audio slide-shows as I go, so if you'd like to keep up with my progress, just click here and subscribe to my YouTube feed.