de Bellaigue is right to note that Iran's government isn't exactly responsible to its citizens/subjects, and that Iran's government can be plausibly skeptical that this isn't a segue to an effort at regime change. Inasmuch as sanctions seem to be the only alternative to a military strike that could lead to war, mind, this might be a case of the least bad option being exerted. (Might.)
[Iran's] leaders now admit that sanctions are having an effect; the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called them “savage.” Oil production has dropped sharply for want of buyers and this year, according to the IMF, the economy is expected to shrink for the first time in two decades. In the autumn, the rial lost almost half its value against the dollar on fears that the government is unwilling or unable to prop it up. Inflation is thought to be running at well over the official rate of 25 percent; unemployment is also rising as consumer spending falls and import-dependent businesses go to the wall.
A cloud of pessimism has settled over Iran, with unaffordable rents, empty butchers’ shops and everybody scrounging money off the next man. The brash, frenetically consumerist Tehran that I had grown accustomed to in recent years has disappeared. To be sure, Iran is not yet in the condition of post-Gulf War Iraq. The country is still finding buyers for a lot of oil, and the IMF predicts that the economy will return to modest growth in 2013. The various sets of sanctions are far from being a comprehensive blockade.
But nor are those sanctions as “smart” as America and its allies like to insist. Yes, Iran is at liberty to purchase food, medicine and humanitarian items. But cutting Iran off from the international banking system is a sure way of denying people access to foreign commodities, as is deliberately bringing about the collapse of the rial. Already, there are signs of a humanitarian crisis. According to the New York Times, one of the last western media outlets with a resident correspondent in Tehran, Iranians suffering from cancer, haemophilia, thalassemia and kidney problems are finding it increasingly hard to get the foreign-made medicines they need. A charity chief quoted by the paper said that hospital machines are breaking down from a lack of spare parts and that pharmaceutical companies are running out of imported raw materials.
And the sanctions are set to only get harder—more “crippling,” in the brutal lexicon now being employed on both sides of the Atlantic. This year alone, hundreds of millions of dollars in fines have been levied against Standard and Chartered and the Dutch bank IMG for moving Iranian money through the U.S. financial system. In the spring, the electronic transfer giant SWIFT ended transactions with Iran’s banking sector. The European Union, which used to buy 20 percent of Iran’s oil, has recently imposed an embargo. A new congressional report details how the foreign subsidiaries of several U.S. firms have decided “voluntarily” to stop doing business with Iran. The same report notes that some U.S. lawmakers believe that pressure should increase still “further and faster.”
[. . .]
The assumption is that the more Iranians suffer, the more their leaders will feel the pressure and either change course or be overthrown in a popular uprising. And yet, there is no evidence to suggest that this is probable, and the Iraqi case suggests the opposite. During the U.N. blockade, Saddam was able to blame foreigners for the nation’s suffering, and ordinary Iraqis—those who might have been expected to show discontent at his misrule—grew more and more dependent on the rations he distributed. Furthermore, America’s insistence that an end to sanctions was conditional on Saddam’s departure removed any incentive he might have had to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. In 1997, he stopped doing so, with the results we all know.