Tourists take a ride in a classic American convertible car with the Cuban national flag painted on the trunk, on December 18, 2014.

Tourists take a ride in a classic American convertible car with the Cuban national flag painted on the trunk, on December 18, 2014. Desmond Boyland/AP

Why Sanctions on Iran Are Not at All Like the Embargo on Cuba

Havana and Tehran are very, very different—and here's why the Obama administration’s approach to U.S. sanctions should be, too. By Bobby Ghosh

Almost as soon as president Obama announced the start of normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, the question was raised: Why not do the same with Iran? The chorus has only grownsince then, with the most plaintive appeal coming from two members of the  National Iranian American Council. Parsing Obama’s televised speech, Trita Parsi and Ryan Costello argued, “If it’s true on Cuba, it’s true on Iran.

Except, of course, it’s not.

Whatever the merits of easing the embargo on Cuba, any parallels with Iran begin and end here: both countries are run by tyrannical regimes that routinely oppress their own people. Beyond that, the two are very, very different—and the Obama administration’s approach to US sanctions should be, too.

Consider just a few important distinctions:

With Cuba, the embargo was ineffective because the US was the only country to impose it: the Castro brothers were able to do business with the rest of the world. This enabled their repression, and—more than the embargo—has kept Cubans in poverty. But the US is far from the only country to feel threatened by the regime in Iran, and it is no coincidence that the sanctions against Tehran are either enforced or endorsed by many nations that had no qualms against trading with Havana.

Cuba has a history of supporting Leftist insurgencies in many parts of the world—it got on the US State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism two years before Iran—but it has recently been unwilling or unable to continue this type of support. The Iranian regime, on the other hand, actively and enthusiastically supports terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Shi’ite groups engaged in sectarian civil wars in Iraq and Yemen. This activity has increased since Hassan Rouhani became president.

The Castro brothers do some artful bombast, but they are not threatening to “annihilate” any country or people—something Iran’s leaders do routinely.

Cuba’s communist government did once try to get its hands on nuclear weapons—or, more accurately, tried to allow the Soviet Union to install them on the island. That was in 1962, and it precipitated the Cuban missile crisis. Iran, on the other hand, was caught trying to build nuclear-weapons technology as recently as 2002, when its secret facilities at Arak and Nataz were discovered. Thereafter, under pressure from the US and the international community, the Tehran regime backed down from its policy of developing dual-use nuclear technology (for energy and weapons) and promised not to build bombs.

Under the pressure of sanctions, Iran’s regime has since for the most part kept that promise. But that is an argument to maintain the duress, not remove it.

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