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May: With Iran, are sanctions working?

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Jan. 11, 2012)

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Jan. 11, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

There's pain and then there's pain.

Getting stung by a bee hurts. Having a Doberman sink his teeth into your thigh is a more intense experience.

By the same token, there are sanctions and then there are sanctions.

For years, the sanctions imposed on Iran were an irritation, a not-entirely-convincing message to the regime that one of these days ... Now, new and tougher sanctions are being imposed on Iran -- and they are beginning to bite.

The rial has lost 50 percent of its value since December. Inflation is running more than 20 percent, with some unofficial estimates twice that. Iran's rulers have forfeited more than $60 billion in energy investment and $14 billion in annual oil sales while hundreds of billions of dollars in potential sales of Iranian natural gas have been prevented. Crude-oil production is falling and Iran's central bank is finding it difficult to receive payments for the oil it does export.

The regime is paying more to import gasoline and has had to slash subsidies as a result, reminding Iranians that they don't have the means to refine their own oil into gasoline -- thanks to their rulers' perverse priorities. "We can't pretend sanctions aren't having an effect," Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said recently.

And no one should pretend there isn't justice in that.

Finally, we are making the theocratic clique that rules Iran pay at least a minimal price for being the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism; for facilitating the killings of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Saudi Arabia and Beirut before that; for assassinating Iranian expatriates in Europe and plotting to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C.; for illegally developing nuclear weapons; for both inciting and threatening genocide; and for killing, raping and imprisoning -- and otherwise egregiously violating the human rights of -- the Iranian people.

Regarding that last indictment, two examples out of hundreds that could be cited: (1) Yousef Nadarkhani is in prison and facing the death penalty. What did he do to deserve that? He converted to Christianity.

(2) Iran's Supreme Court recently confirmed the death sentence of Saeed Malekpour, an Iranian-born Canadian permanent resident. Of what was he convicted? "Crimes against Islam" and "spreading corruption on Earth." Decent people do not wear "blood diamonds." Why is it more defensible to pump "blood oil" into your Volvo? If sanctions achieve nothing more than to make clear that civilized people do not do business as usual with tyrants and, in particular, with storm troopers -- a fair description of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which owns many of the country's major industries and businesses -- then they are worth the effort.

Beyond imposing a price for past and current crimes, is there anything else that sanctions can achieve? By now we know that Iran's rulers will not negotiate in good faith. It is possible -- not probable -- that strong, sustained economic pressure will force Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to consider whether the nuclear-weapons program intended to enhance his power could end up jeopardizing it instead.

More plausibly, sanctions may strengthen the regime's opponents. And sanctions make it much more difficult for Khamenei to use the country's oil wealth to extinguish the still-glowing embers of revolution.

Sanctions -- Congress this week is considering a new round -- should be just one weapon in an arsenal of policies aimed at weakening Iran's fanatical rulers immediately and dislodging them eventually. President Barack Obama should be speaking directly to the Iranian people, telling them that Americans want them to live in freedom and without fear. But those who rule them today cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons -- not by us and not by them.

Such moral support should be matched by material assistance. We can find out what regime opponents need to communicate, organize and mobilize, and we can get it to them. Yes, the regime will accuse the dissidents of being American agents. They already say that, so what's the difference? Finally, there must be no ambiguity about our determination to prevent this regime -- which, a growing body of evidence shows, works hand-in-glove with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups -- from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

There are conflicts and then there are conflicts. Iran's rulers need to understand that if they continue to escalate this conflict, sooner or later they will come to the end of the road. And there they will find not just a hive of bees, but the jaws of a very angry junkyard dog.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Email Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,