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Stop the Collective Punishment of the Iranian People
Collective punishment is as far from solidarity with the Iranian people as it is possible to get.
Sajjad Safaei makes the crucial point in a new article for DAWN’s Democracy in Exile:
If talks to salvage the nuclear agreement—which President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of unilaterally and tried to torpedo with renewed sanctions on Iran—are truly over, an opportunity to provide relief to ordinary Iranians has been lost. Despite the usual criticisms from Republicans in Washington, and other opponents of the nuclear deal, diplomatic engagement with Iran does not, in fact, betray the Iranian people. If anything, the ongoing demonstrations highlight the need to intensify diplomacy with Iran rather than keep isolating it. U.S. sanctions have devastated and disempowered the Iranian middle class, the pillar of the country's embattled pro-democracy movement. A restored nuclear deal that results in easing sanctions on Iran will ultimately benefit the very people still protesting for their rights today.
Safaei is absolutely right, and this is why I keep saying that the most helpful and constructive thing that the U.S. could do right now is to provide the Iranian people with extensive sanctions relief. It is ordinary Iranians that have borne the brunt of our government’s economic war, and they will be the ones that benefit if the war is ended. We need to reject the conceit of sanctions advocates that they “stand with” the people when they are the ones responsible for impoverishing and strangling them.
Collective punishment is as far from solidarity with the Iranian people as it is possible to get, and no one interested in a freer Iran can be on board with keeping it under siege and trying to cut it off from doing business with the rest of the world. You can support broad sanctions on another country or you can show support for people protesting for their rights, but if you support the former you are directly attacking the people and their rights. This is true wherever broad sanctions are being used, because broad sanctions are an attack on the entire population by design.
Even when there are nominal humanitarian exemptions, these cannot begin to make up for the damage caused by fueling ruinous inflation and the destruction of people’s earnings and savings. As Safaei explains, “sanctions have drastically accelerated mass pauperization in the country.” Just as no country can live on humanitarian aid alone, no people can thrive on humanitarian exemptions when the rest of their economy is being wrecked. Furthermore, we know that these exemptions often fail in practice because the fear of sanctions punishment outweighs any incentive to do business with a targeted country. Even when channels exist to conduct legitimate humanitarian trade, very few are willing to court the risk and the cost of compliance that come with using those channels.
It is not possible to inflict widespread damage on a country’s economy without striking at the lives and livelihoods of the tens of millions of people that participate in that economy. Sanctions are often presented as “low-cost,” but that always leaves out the costs that the targeted population has to pay. If we correctly measured all of the harm done by sanctions, we would recognize that the price that our government makes other people pay for its expressions of disapproval is far too high.
Diplomatic engagement that leads to sanctions relief is one of the few things that the U.S. could do in response to protests in Iran that might actually do some good. It is a measure of how warped our Iran debate is and how confused many people are about broad sanctions that all of the momentum right now seems to be in favor of shutting down negotiations and imposing even more sanctions. Rep. Ted Lieu responded to a bogus, debunked headline with a call for “maximum pressure”:
The Biden Administration should impose immediately all sanctions that are still available on Iran. The United States and decent countries around the world need to exert maximum pressure on the Iranian regime, now.
Rep. Lieu’s response is misguided in several ways. First, the claim that prompted his response is false, but the impulse to pile on more sanctions would be misguided in any case. Broad sanctions typically have the effect of making the targeted state more repressive and brutal. Sanctioned states engage in more human rights abuses rather than fewer, so sanctions are exactly the wrong answer to such abuses. The evidence of this is on full display in Iran right now. The continuation of current sanctions and the imposition of more would be heavy blows to a population that has already endured so much hardship.
Iran is already under some of the most stringent and extensive sanctions in existence, so there is not much more for the U.S. to sanction. “Maximum pressure” has been tried for the last four and a half years, and it has failed and backfired. If we cannot recognize the total failure of broad sanctions in this case, I fear that there is no example of failed sanctions policy that can change official Washington’s thinking about this hazardous, malfunctioning tool.
Only hardliners here and in Iran stand to benefit from an end to diplomacy and the intensification of sanctions. If we don’t want to empower hardliners further, we have to insist that the U.S. persist in its negotiations on the nuclear issue and we need to start demanding that our government grant sanctions relief as a humanitarian gesture to the Iranian people. The very least that the U.S. can do is to stop the collective punishment of an entire nation.