Iran's Nuclear Talks Follow Months Of Sanctions

Apr 13, 2012
Originally published on January 29, 2013 4:55 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


As we've just heard, Iran was reluctant to attend these talks in Turkey. One reason Iranian leaders did agree to show up is that their country is under extraordinary economic pressure. The U.S. and its allies have imposed tough sanctions with a clear goal: force Iranian leaders to come clean on their nuclear plans. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, if ever there's a time when sanctions will work, this should be it.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The United States and the European Union won't buy Iranian oil. It's becoming difficult for Iran to do any international trade. Loopholes the Iranians have used in the past are closing. Suzanne Maloney, of the Brookings Institution, says the United States, after years of trying, has finally succeeded in putting the squeeze on Iran.

SUZANNE MALONEY: There has been a direct effect on the pocketbooks of average Iranians that is simply unprecedented in the history of this very tormented relationship between the two countries and the long history of sanctions that's been applied. Never before have we seen ordinary Iranians, the Iranian citizen, see the immediate impact of sanctions so dramatically.

GJELTEN: With its foreign oil sales dropping fast - and due to drop more - Iran is seeing its revenues shrink. Its currency has lost much of its value, making imports of consumer goods or equipment more expensive. That's if the Iranians can find foreign companies willing to sell to them. They've been reduced in some cases to barter, trading oil for gold or whatever they can get.

MALONEY: There are a number of other areas where we've seen the Iranians trying to deal with the impact of sanctions, stockpiling millions of tons of wheat on the anticipation that it's going to be much more difficult to purchase even basic food supplies. They need for the Iranian government to step in and ration a number of products.

GJELTEN: The sanctions applied against Iran are so broad they virtually constitute economic warfare. Maloney, an expert on the Iranian economy, says the U.S. government for years has been conducting a global campaign against all dealings with Iran, and it's had an effect.

MALONEY: That has cast a fairly wide shadow and persuaded many businesses, even in advance of the threat of sanctions, that it's simply too risky to do business in Iran today.

GJELTEN: In fact, sanctions can be too successful. Iran has been a global oil supplier. If too much Iranian oil is blocked from coming to market, the world price of oil would skyrocket. Because of global connections, a sanctions regime these days has to be designed to hurt the target country while minimizing the effects on others. Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says one problem with the Iran sanctions is that they can scare off legitimate trade.

MARK DUBOWITZ: Insurance and reinsurance companies are unwilling to underwrite even permissible oil shipments because of concerns that they, too, could be penalized.

GJELTEN: New U.S. legislation under consideration would clarify what's legal and what's not. But it would also extend sanctions to sectors of the Iranian economy not yet covered. In fact, what's emerging around Iran may be the most sophisticated sanctions regime ever devised. And U.S. officials are convinced it's because of these sanctions that Iran may now be more open to negotiations over its nuclear program than it has been in a while. But Mark Dubowitz, while still believing in sanctions policy, fears Iranian leaders are still not ready to give up any plans they may have for building a nuclear weapon. If they are to bend, he says, it will have to be soon.

DUBOWITZ: I think after that, even advocates of sanctions like myself will have to acknowledge that sanctions have failed, and we will need to consider other alternatives.

GJELTEN: And that would raise the question of whether any sanctions program can force a country to do something it doesn't want to do. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.