'Maximum Pressure' Is Malicious and So Are Its Supporters

Sanctions relief benefits the people first and foremost because they are the ones that suffer most from the sanctions.

The Wall Street Journal editors want…wait for it…more pressure on Iran:

Abandoning negotiations would mean a return to Mr. Trump’s “maximum-pressure” sanctions campaign, which Biden officials criticized. But the single-term Trump Administration never had a chance to fully realize the strategy. As deadly protests rock Iran’s southwest, the Biden Administration should be increasing pressure on the regime—not giving it an escape route.

Sanctions advocates always have an excuse for why their pressure campaigns fail to achieve their stated goals. If the targeted state does not make concessions, it is because the sanctions are not strict enough or they have not been given time to work. This has become the fallback argument that Iran hawks use to defend the abject failure of “maximum pressure,” but their argument falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. Iran has been under increasingly severe sanctions, both multilateral and unilateral, for most of the last two decades, and each time Iran came under increased pressure from outside their response was to build up the nuclear program in response. More time and more pressure cannot yield the results Iran hawks claim to want because their goals are unachievable.

Continuing “maximum pressure” would take us down the same well-trodden path of escalation as Iran builds more centrifuges and enriches more uranium at higher levels and the U.S. applies more pointless sanctions. The impasse was broken in Obama’s second term when the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 were willing to strike the compromise on domestic enrichment that they could have had years earlier. All that the sanctions achieved the first time was to get an agreement that required Iran to reverse the expansion of the nuclear program that had been triggered by the imposition of sanctions. The sanctions campaign was all a colossal waste of time and effort, and many innocent Iranians suffered needlessly in the meantime. The same thing is unfolding now, except that the sanctions are being imposed only by the U.S. and have no legitimacy in the eyes of much of the world.

Increasing outside pressure on the Iranian government is idiotic if you wish political protest and dissent to flourish. When a state is under siege, it clamps down harder on domestic protests, and it is even less tolerant of dissent. Waging pitiless economic war on the entire country worsens all of the problems that already exist, and they create additional hardships that the people must endure. Under those conditions, people lack the means, time, and energy to organize political opposition. As usual, the hawks are wrong. Sanctions relief benefits the people first and foremost because they are the ones that suffer most from the sanctions. If you are opposed to sanctions relief, you are opposed to alleviating that suffering.

Ratcheting up pressure when Iran is still fighting the pandemic is not just bad policy. It is simple malice. No one can honestly look at the effects of this policy on the civilian population and conclude that inflicting collective punishment on tens of millions of people is justifiable. If the Biden administration keeps “maximum pressure” in place, it will be endorsing an evil and pointlessly cruel policy.