For years, there have been voices telling us that economic sanctions would not lead to positive change in Iran. Sanctions, the mantra went, would only empower the Iranian regime and Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), by stoking nationalism and leading the Iranian people to revile the West and coalesce in support of their current leadership.
Yet Iran's most recent presidential election, which resulted in hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being replaced by Hassan Rouhani, has proved that argument to be wrong. The people of Iran did not show increased support for the regime, in fact they did the most they could under difficult circumstances to make change.
Amazingly, however, with Rouhani being inaugurated, the same individuals who wrongly predicted that sanctions would empower the regime are still at it, arguing that it is now time to scale them back, what with a "moderate" president now taking power. Such thinking is not just illogical, but quite dangerous at this historically perilous time. The key objective for any foreign policy maker right now, given the high stakes, has to be stopping Iran's nuclear program. And it is only a strengthening of sanctions, not a lifting of them, that will force the regime's hand.
Lost in much of the post-election analysis was a recap of the campaign itself, and what the Iranian people were actually voting on. In reality, the 2013 election was largely about Iran's nuclear program and the related sanctions. Indeed the presidential debates were dominated by discussions of sanctions and the nuclear program, and Rouhani was portrayed by Iran's hardliners as the farthest candidate from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his protégé Saeed Jalili on this issue. (Related: House aims at Iran's energy sector)
True, Rouhani is not really a moderate, but a regime insider who has already pledged to continue Iran's nuclear program. Yet it still says something that the Iranian people overwhelmingly voted for him over five even more extreme candidates, headlined by the regime's defiant nuclear negotiator Jalili, who called for a national "discourse of resistance" and said again and again that Iran should stand against "cruel sanctions" and continue its current progress.
Jalili's meager vote tally, Rouhani's victory, and everything else coming out of Iran these days indicates that the Iranian people largely blame the regime and its reckless nuclear drive for the economic disaster the nation is now confronting. Even Iranians who have previously supported the regime and its nuclear program are deciding that it is simply not worth the resulting economic pain.
Another key effect of sanctions has been the wrench it has thrown into the regime's usual business strategies. Significantly, hundreds of international corporations have fled Iran in recent years due to sanctions and pressure, and dozens of countries have declared themselves off-limits to business involving Iran or its sinking currency. The partners the regime has relied on for decades are dwindling, and Khamenei is finding himself increasingly out of options.
Further, the sanctions have stoked division within the ranks. Consider that during the campaign two regime officials, Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior special advisor to the Supreme Leader in foreign affairs, and Mohsen Rezaei, the former IRGC commander, emphatically criticized Jalili's confrontational nuclear policy in a TV debate in front of millions of surprised Iranians. Velayati lectured Jalili that "We have not moved one step forward, while the pressure on people is increasing every day [because of sanctions]."
Khamenei is now in the weakest position he has ever been: the sanctions are working, by greatly slowing the economy and isolating his country from the rest of the world. Millions of Iranians favor a change in the nuclear policy, and are voicing unhappiness with the way the regime runs the country. Importantly, these voices of dissent in Iran need to see that the West will keep the pressure up and not let the mullahs get their way, even if it means a full-scale economic blockade of Iran with only a humanitarian exception.
This is absolutely not the time for the international community to back off. The regime is in a corner and now has only two choices: cease its military nuclear program, or face more isolation and economic disaster that could potentially lead to social unrest and even a fundamental political change in the country. Lessening sanctions now would undesirably change that dynamic.
The international community and U.S. government must effectively enforce the current sanctions, and increase the pressure by introducing more. The regime Khamenei leads is on shaky ground: it's now time to break his will.
—Saeed Ghasseminejad is cofounder of Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates and a prominent Iranian dissident. Nathan Carleton is Communications Director for United Against Nuclear Iran, a non-profit, non-partisan organization located in New York City that has worked with dozens of multinational companies to end their business in Iran. .