Luckily the Washington Post quickly posted a clarification that better reflected what the sources actually said and more or less confirmed my initial reaction of "not news."
The Obama administration sees economic sanctions against Iran as building public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons program, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.Crisis averted.
However, what did surprise me was the emphasis on "public discontent" as the mechanism for putting pressure on an authoritarian regime. Certainly riots and protests are inconvenient for Iran's leadership, but absent critical defections from regime insiders, Iran's current authorities can still repress their way to survival as long as they maintain their core group of supporters. Dan Drezner at FP made this point in a post yesterday:
Based on how the leadership has treated domestic unrest, it seems clear that the top leadership is perfectly comfortable following The Dictator's Handbook approach to staying in power. More-powerful sanctions will therefore simply lead to more-powerful crackdowns. If Iranian elites view the nuclear program as the key to preventing outside attempts at forcible regime change, there's no way they'll compromise.So when and how would sanctions be effective against an authoritarian regime? While it has been argued that autocracies are overall less vulnerable to sanctions than democracies (precisely because of the effect described above), recent research suggests that the type of autocracy may matter. Escribà-Folch and Wright (2010) (ungated) argue that personalist regimes, weakly institutionalized autocracies centered around a single autocrat, are particularly vulnerable to sanctions as their existence depends on the maintenance of strong patronage networks to pacify other elites. Single-party regimes, however, are less vulnerable as their patronage is based more on granting loyal elites "access" to the policy-making apparatus. These regimes are also better able to recapture revenue lost due to sanctions as they have greater institutional capacity.
But where does Iran fall? The answer is rather unclear. Iran's theocratic government appears to be a blend of both single-party and personalist characteristics (Ulfelder (2005) (gated), following Geddes' (1999) original typology categorizes it as a hybrid regime). Although institutionalized through a complex clerical structure, power is ultimately concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Leader who controls access to important decision-making posts. Yet when it comes to regime survival (our variable of interest), Geddes (2003) finds that such hybrid regimes tend to behave more like personalist ones (82). Moreover, Alamdari (2005) (ungated) suggests that Iran specifically reflects a highly personalistic patronage structure indicative of a weak center. Multiple autonomous bases of power exist and they are tenuously connected by the threads of economic relations (i.e. oil revenues) and access to power. He argues that:
Clientelism as a multi-power structure dominates in a situation of weak central government, or it may undermine the authority of a legal government. It explains the numerous centres of power in Iran challenging each other and the elected government. According to one source, after the election of 1997 three parallel governments under the leadership of Mohammad Khatami (president), Ali Khamenei (the supreme leader), and Rafsanjani (head of the Expediency Council) formed in Iran. Iran is among the rare countries in the world with two official armies (a conventional army and the Revolutionary Guards) and two judicial systems (regular and revolutionary). Six central legislative institutions-the Majlis, the Council for the Cultural Revolution, the Council for National Security, the Council of Guardians, the Expediency Council, and the Council of Ministers-are influenced by various groups. There are many contradictory economic and financial policies, and several parallel selected and elected political leaders, plus many powerful shadow governments behind the scene. (1291-1292)
Certainly the most recent conflicts between Ahmadinejad and Khameni are also a potential hint of such intra-elite tensions. If sanctions weaken the patronage webs that allow these multiple competing power centers to tenuously co-exist, then it is possible that the risk of elite defection (and thereby a potentially credible threat of regime collapse) could result.
Of course there are countless other factors that could mitigate the effectiveness of sanctions. Compliance is a definite factor, especially given a valuable commodity such as oil. Indeed Escribà-Folch and Wright (2010) find some support (though not statistically significant) for the argument that oil-producing states are less likely to be affected by sanctions since rents from production are high enough to off-set the external costs. Generally speaking, autocracies are more resilient in the face of sanctions. However, given the current Iranian power structure, there is a distinct possibility that sanctions could exacerbate conflicts among elites and thus be a somewhat effective coercive strategy (though one that is not particularly dependent on mass mobilization).
As a final note, research on autocracy type and the effectiveness of popular mobilization suggests the opposite. Single-party regimes are actually more susceptible to domestic opposition movements than personalist regimes (see Ulfelder (2005)). We will have to wait and see whether Iran's hybrid autocracy exaggerates the resiliencies or the deficiencies of the two.