The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Iranian Dissidents Fear Repercussions of U.S. Sanctions

Iran’s Green Movement and its allies are concerned that crippling sanctions against the regime would harm Iranian citizens and discredit the opposition.

Sanah Connor
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Dec 28, 2009

Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Roshan Norouzi/
Mir-Hossein Moussavi (Roshan Norouzi/

As the Obama administration and its allies prepare new economic sanctions for Iran, the Iranian dissidents of the Green Movement and their supporters abroad are expressing concern over what the sanctions will mean for a nascent political force that has the potential to transform the Islamic Republic. But some are beginning to think that sanctions specifically targeting the most hardline elements of the Iranian regime might be acceptable.

[Security1] Ever since the fraud-filled June 12 presidential election yielded the largest protests in 30 years from Iranians demanding widespread political reform, the Iranian regime has embarked on a campaign to discredit the Greens by portraying them as tools of nefarious western interests. The attack on the Greens’ nationalist credentials has come alongside mass detentions and brutality directed at them by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ideological vanguard of the Iranian military, and the pro-regime militia known as the Basij. Under those pressures, Green leaders like Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Kerroubi have staked out an even more nationalistic stance than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, urging him to reject a deal offered by the Obama administration that would tamp down international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

Similarly, both Moussavi and Kerroubi have denounced the prospect of new international sanctions. “I do not agree with any pressure on any government because, at the end of the day, the ordinary people will suffer,” Kerroubi said in October. Moussavi has circulated a statement portraying sanctions as ultimately benefiting a regime prone to demagoguery and hurting “the people who have already been agonized by this government.”

That sentiment has been echoed by some Green allies in the United States, who cringed over an exchange this spring between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) about placing “crippling sanctions” on Iran. “Economic sanctions, particularly ‘crippling’ or blanket economic sanctions, are counterproductive and will only hurt the regular Iranian citizens,” said Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Sanctions such as the petroleum sanctions will surely help the government and Revolutionary Guards who are already so apt at smuggling and will transfer the burden to the average citizen while blaming the foreign powers for their hardship.”

On Dec. 15, the House passed a bill sponsored by Berman, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, granting President Obama new powers to place sanctions on petroleum products and other fuel imports to Iran. In a press conference after the bill passed, Berman derided “the notion that you are going to have effective sanctions that don’t impact on the Iranian people,” contending that it would be hard to devise a real sanctions package that did not have adverse economic effects on Iranian citizens.

Still, that’s exactly the distinction that some Green supporters in the Iranian exile community say lawmakers must draw if sanctions are to gain even reluctant Green support. Over the past several years, the IRGC has played an increasingly prominent role in Iranian civilian economic activity and especially in the nuclear program that has prompted the prospective sanctions. Ghaemi said he supports “very well-defined, targeted sanctions” aimed at “the government or Revolutionary Guards’ pocket book, not the people’s.”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he perceived a shift in how Green supporters in and outside of Iran were discussing sanctions. While they once opposed any form of punitive measure against Iran, the post-June 12 anger at the regime and the IRGC has led some to view sanctions targeted against the IRGC more favorably, though that view is not universal.

“There’s a diversity of views, with some in favor and some opposed,” Sadjadpour said. “Post-June 12 was a real earthquake. Many friends who unequivocally opposed U.S. punitive measures in the past now believe [IRGC-focused sanctions] could be a necessary evil. But I don’t claim that’s necessarily a majority view, just that the view exists.”

An example of the heated debate within pro-Green communities in the United States came earlier this month in New York, when a student group expressing solidarity with the Greens held a forum featuring Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi and Akbar Batebi, a former Iranian student activist leader. According to an account of the forum posted on, Batebi contended that “we have to use sanctions against the coup government,” while Dabashi countered that “sanctions would be a precusor [sic] for military strikes on Iran, as they had been in Iraq.”

Sadjadpour noted that while some on the pro-Green side were starting to warm to sanctions, none accepted the prospect of a military strike on Iran. “Military action would would kill the opposition movement.”

In an unexpected move, last month the Iranian filmmaker and close Moussavi ally Mohsen Makmalbaf endorsed “sanctions to hurt the regime, but not the people” during an appearance at at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. Provocatively, Makmalbaf suggested that Green leaders only publicly opposed sanctions because they would be placing their lives in danger if they endorsed them. At his press conference on the 15th, Berman echoed the suggestion that Moussavi and Kerroubi’s opposition to sanctions was insincere. “There are a lot of different reasons why they might have said that,” he said.

To Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, attempts at reading Green leaders’ minds are exasperating. “The opposition has made it as clear as it possibly can make it: They’re not seeking sanctions,” Parsi said. “How many different ways do they have to say it before it sinks in?”

The Obama administration has yet to decide on a sanctions package, and accordingly has not secured international support for any specific sanctions. But the administration is looking at targeting the IRGC specifically — although a knowledgeable U.S. official said that unintended effects of sanctions on the Greens were a real concern. “It’s a fair critique,” the official told TWI last week.

Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, the sanctions package will likely be finalized early in the new year. However, circumstances could change before then; Iran’s foreign minister said this weekend that Iran might accept a modified version of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal.

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