Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Effect of the Sanctions: Is Iran Cracking Down Under the Strain?

I have to confess that the title of this post is a little of a clickbait. In reality, I will tell you more about Italy than about Iran. But, perhaps, from the story of how Italy reacted to the international economic sanctions imposed on the country in 1935, we can learn something about what could be the result of the current sanctions on Iran. Above, a photo from 1935, it shows a stone slab with the engraved words. "On 18 November 1935, the world besieged Italy. Perennial infamy on those who favored and consumed this absurd crime." Most of these slabs were destroyed after the defeat of Italy in WW2, but some can still be found.

In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, at that time the only remaining free African country. Why exactly that happened is a long story. Let me just say that, in part, it was a revenge for a defeat suffered long before, when an early attempt at invading Ethiopia had failed. In part, it also had to do with reacting to the financial crash of 1929: governments often tend to seek for external enemies to distract people from internal troubles. Then, in part, it was seen as a way to displease the hated British, seen as guilty of not providing for Italy the coal that the Italian economy needed. And, finally, it had to do with some nebulous dreams about rebuilding the Roman Empire. It may sound silly, today, but if you read what people wrote at that time in Italy, that idea of creating a new Roman Empire was taken seriously.

Whatever the reasons, in 1935 the Ethiopian army was overwhelmed by the modern weaponry deployed by Italy, planes and tanks, with the added help of poison gas bombing, a military innovation for that time. The final result was that the King of Italy gained the dubious honor of taking for himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia" and that Italy gained "a place in the sun" in Africa, as the propaganda described the results of the campaign.

A victory, yes, but a hollow one. From the beginning, Ethiopia was only a burden for the Italian economy and the costs of the military occupation were just too much for the already strained Italian finances. The final result was perhaps the shortest-lived empire in history: it lasted just five years, collapsing in 1941 when the Italian forces in Ethiopia were quickly defeated by a coalition of Ethiopian and allied forces.

An interesting side effect of the invasion of Ethiopia was the story of the imposition of economic sanctions on Italy by the League of the Nations. It was a half-hearted effect to stop the invasion, but the war lasted just 8 months and the sanctions were dropped just two months afterward. Their effect was nearly zero in economic and military terms but, in political terms, it was a completely different story and the consequences reverberated for years. Here are some of these consequences:

1. The Italians were not only appalled at the sanctions, they were positively enraged. According to the international laws of the time, for a state to attack another was not in itself a crime (unlike the use of chemical weapons, but that came to be known only later). So, most Italians felt that they were punished for having done something -- annexing an African country -- that the other Western Powers had done before without anyone complaining. The result was a burst of national pride and a strong wave of popular support for the war. That generated also a wave of personal popularity for the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, seen as the one who was making Italy great again (some things never change in politics).

2. The sanctions transformed a war waged on a poor and backward country into something epic and grandiose. Italians perceived the struggle against a coalition of the great powers of the world, Britain in particular. And, by defeating this coalition, Italy showed that it was a great power, too, on a par with the others. This idea had terrible consequences when it led the Duce, Benito Mussolini, to think that Italy could match the military capabilities of the major world powers in WW2.

3. The government propaganda in Italy used the sanctions to magnify the importance of the Ethiopian campaign, seen as a turning point in the quest for a new Italian Empire. As a result, Ethiopia became a national priority, to be kept at all costs. At the start of WW2, Italy had more than 100,000 fully equipped troops there. Without the possibility of being resupplied from Italy, these troops had no chances against the British and they were rapidly wiped out. What might have happened if they had been available in other war theaters? It is unlikely that the final outcome of WW2 would have changed, but, who knows? The battle for Egypt in 1942 could have had a different outcome if Italy had been able to field 100,000 more troops there and, maybe, taken the Suez canal.

This catalog of disasters is so impressive that we might wonder if the sanctions were not just the result of incompetence and idiocy, but of an evil machination. Could it be that the British had wanted Italy to engage in an adventure that was sure to lead the country to ruin, later? Of course, it is unlikely that the British had been planning for exactly what happened, but it is not impossible that they understood that the Italian military apparatus would be weakened by the task of keeping Ethiopia and that would make Italy a less dangerous adversary in case of an all-out military conflict. If the British had planned that, they truly deserved the reputation they had at the time (and that they still have) described with the name of the "Perfidious Albion."

That's the story of the sanctions against Italy, now let's go to the sanctions against Iran. First of all, a disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert in Iranian matters and politics. I don't speak Persian and I visited Iran only once in my life. So, I can only claim to have read and studied about Iran for years and to have many Iranian friends and acquaintances. Yet, if I think of the idiocies that you can read on the Western Media about Iran, I feel I can do something better, maybe useful for the readers of this blog. So, let me take a look at the current sanctions on Iran on the basis of the assumption that Iranian and Italians are very similar people in terms of ideas, temperament, and beliefs -- which I think is true on the basis of my experience.

Then, we know that story rhimes, but never exactly repeats. So, there are many similarities in the story of the sanctions against Iran and those against Italy, but also considerable differences. The main similarity is, of course, that Iranians feel unjustly punished for doing something, starting a nuclear energy program, that other countries could do in the past without anyone punishing them. But note also that the current sanctions on Iran are harsher than anything that was imposed on Italy. When vice-president Pompeo said that the purpose of the sanctions is to starve the Iranians, you get a certain feeling that the matter is deadly serious in a literal sense.

So, what's happening in Iran and what might happen in the future? As I already discussed in a previous post, so far the effect of the sanctions has been limited. But inflation is biting hard the finances of the Iranian Middle Class and the government risks to be soon in trouble in maintaining the services that so far have been provided for free: instruction, health care, and more. In the long run, the cohesion of the Iranian society could be threatened and the recent street disorders could be a symptom of something like that.

The Iranian government is currently led by a moderate, President Rouhani, who stated more than once that he doesn't want to engage in any kind of retaliation. Some Iranians would want a more forceful reaction but, in general, they seem to recognize their weakness in front of the mighty US empire. Fortunately, nobody in Iran seems to be thinking of resurrecting the defunct Parthian Empire, unlike what Italians were trying to do with the Roman Empire in the 1930s. If Iran can hold on long enough, the storm may indeed end.

But what if the sanctions had a true evil purpose in the sense of having the task of pushing Iran to do something stupid, as it was the case with Italy, long ago? Under heavy strain, Iranians could decide that their best bet is for a strong leader who would "Make Iran Great Again." And what could happen if things really go from bad to worse? Iranians could go through the same chain of misperceptions that Italy followed, bolstered by some local success, becoming convinced to be a great power. Then, if an American president wants to obliterate Iran with a nuclear strike, who or what could stop her? Then, if evil has to be, could that be the real purpose of the sanctions?

Hopefully, these extreme scenarios will never take place but one thing is clear to me: sanctions are a bad idea. They are sold to the Western public as something "humane," actually designed to help the people they target to get rid of an evil and oppressive government. It is not like that. Maybe sanctions are not as bad as carpet bombing, but they are a tool to start wars.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)