The West should be wary of alienating Iran’s educated youth: The case of sanctions and Sharif University of Technology

Economic sanctions: Negative side-effects and regime-society cohesion

The Western media has in recent months picked up on the negative impacts of economic sanctions on the Iranian people. In July 2012 the Wall Street Journal and other outlets covered the difficulties sanctions were creating for food imports into Iran, dubbing it the “chicken crisis” because of the skyrocketing price of chicken (a staple of the Iranian diet) and protests over poultry shortages. More recently, the media has started giving special attention to shortages in medicines and medical equipment, and the adverse effects this could be having on the Iranian health care system and Iranians’ health. The first recorded sanctions-related death is believed to have occurred this Autumn to a young hemophilia patient whose family was unable to find the basic medicine in time to save his life.

This points to deep flaws in the United States and European Union backed sanctions regime against Iran. Even while ostensibly targeting Iran’s nuclear program using “smart” sanctions on both nuclear proliferating individuals and entities and the Iranian petroleum industry, which finances the Iranian nuclear program, sanctions are increasingly both multilateral and comprehensive. This means that just as in South Africa, Iraq, and other states where comprehensive sanctions were applied, ordinary Iranians will bear the brunt of sanctions because the regime will shift resources to strengthen its own core constituencies and meet the needs of strategic priorities such as the nuclear program.

No doubt some in the US and EU see this as a good thing under the potentially misguided assumption that by creating hardships for Iranians, they will rise up against the Islamic Republic and carry out regime-change. While many Iranians likely blame the Iranian government for their hardships, the practical impacts of sanctions in this regard may not be what many pundits and policy-makers believe. It is not for nothing that Johan Galtung, one of the earliest thinkers on the impact of economic sanctions on regime-population cohesion, called the idea that comprehensive sanctions will lead to regime change the “naive” theory of sanctions. In fact, as Risa Brooks pointed out in a study, comprehensive sanctions may actually in some cases strengthen authoritarian regimes, as in the case of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Sanctions and Iran’s educated youth

This points to the need for greater nuance in sanction making policy by both the United States and European Union to curtail the negative impact on ordinary Iranians while still meeting the foreign policy objective of changing the Islamic Republic’s dangerous behaviour on a wide range of issues. The US and EU in particular need to pay special attention to their soft power in Iranian society, and in particular to the way in which they are perceived by Iranian youth. Today’s generation of Iranian youth, the overwhelming majority born during or after the Islamic Revolution, are not anti-Western in the same way their parents were in their youths during the 1960s and 70s. In fact, they may be the greatest hope for strong Iran-Western relations in the decades to come. Yet it is precisely this critical group of people who the US and EU may be hurting.

The recent expansion of the list of sanctioned entities and individuals to include Sharif University of Technology (SUT) is an especially dangerous precedent in this regard. According to EU Council regulation No 1264/2012 of 21 December 2012, Council Regulation No 267/2012 of 23 March 2012 Annex IX will be updated to include Sharif University:

“Sharif University of Technology (SUT)  is assisting designated entities to violate the provisions of UN and EU sanctions on Iran and is providing  support to Iran’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities. As of late  2011 SUT had provided laboratories for use by UN-designated Iranian nuclear entity Kalaye Electric Company (KEC) and EU-designated Iran Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA)”

Based on Article 46(2) of regulation No 267/2012, this means that the EU may now subject Sharif University to measures referred to under Article 23(2-3), the implication being that: “All funds and economic resources belonging to, owned, held or controlled by the persons, entities and bodies listed in Annex IX shall be frozen…[23(2)]” and that “No funds or economic resources shall be made available, directly or indirectly, to or for the benefit of the natural or legal persons, entities or bodies listed…[23(3)]”

As Iran’s foremost higher education institute in the field of science and technology, the logic of the new EU Council regulation listing Sharif University may be to target possible proliferation-related activities there. While this may make sense in a very limited way, the inclusion of SUT as an institution to the sanctions list opens the door for the application of measures which both hurts Iranian students and researchers in terms of their work inside Iran and their ability to pursue higher education outside of the country.

As the Washington Post pointed out in 2008: “Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has encouraged scientific breakthroughs for geopolitical reasons. “If you are in pursuit of a science, you bring dissatisfaction and displeasure to the enemy of the revolution’s aspirations,” Khamenei said during a visit to Iran’s stem cell research center in 2006.” However, the overwhelming majority of Iranian students in the sciences and engineering do not fall into the regime’s geopolitical discourse. Sharif University attracts Iran’s best and brightest in technical fields, alongside other schools such as the University of Tehran. As the Daily Beast pointed out in an article 2008, Iranian students put in long hours in school to enter these schools because it is one of the sure ways to a better life, often outside of the country. As Iran’s international science and mathematics olympiads results and Stanford University officials comments show, these students are among the best in the world in their respective fields.

By targeting Sharif University, which unlike the defense industry-linked Malek-Ashtar University of Technology is a civilian school, the EU is opening the door for targeting Iran’s top universities on a larger scale, perhaps followed by the US. This would not only hurt the level of science and technology and education prospects inside Iran, but if carried to its logical conclusion could hurt the prospects of Iranians going to study abroad more than sanctions already have. It is not inconceivable for Iranian students to soon face rejection en masse from universities in the West (despite their strong qualifications) for simply having studied at these schools. This is not simply sanctions against a rogue regime: It is akin to war on a civilization. Young Iranians studying abroad, often the best vector to carry Western values such as human rights and democracy back to their country, may soon begin feeling greater hostility toward the West because of these policies which hurt them on a very personal level. These often non-political students simply seeking a better life are unlikely to solely blame the Islamic Republic for their woes: If coupled with military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, an entire generation of Iranian youth open to the West and its values may follow in the treacherous anti-Western path of their parents after the CIA-backed 1953 coup d’état.

In making sanctions policy, both the US and EU would do well to use a scalpel and not a hammer, as they are doing now. By mechanistically applying these increasingly comprehensive sanctions against Iran, the West risks turning one of the most pro-Western societies in the Middle East against it. The elite youth in schools like Sharif University will no doubt one day become leaders in  a number of fields in Iran, including government, academia, industry, and culture. Alienating these youth may start a dangerous trend that could only perpetuate the ongoing conflict between Iran and the West, something which will ultimately hurt both sides.