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The Effects of The Economic Sanctions Against Iran

[Iranian banknotes and foreign coins are displayed by a vendor on a side walk of the Ferdowsi Street in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, 23 January 2013. Iran's national currency lost nearly forty percent of its value in 2012. Each US dollar was traded at about ten thousand rials as recently as early 2011. Iranian authorities have accused the West of waging an [Iranian banknotes and foreign coins are displayed by a vendor on a side walk of the Ferdowsi Street in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, 23 January 2013. Iran's national currency lost nearly forty percent of its value in 2012. Each US dollar was traded at about ten thousand rials as recently as early 2011. Iranian authorities have accused the West of waging an "economic war." The country is living under stepped up Western sanctions that also include banking restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for Iran's Asian customers to pay for oil deliveries. Image by Vahid Salemi/AP Photo.]

[A note about the personal stories in the article: The personal stories included in this article are responses from an online survey I conducted in Persian about the impact of the economic sanctions on the public and domestic spheres. The purpose of the survey is to create a space for the everyday, untold experiences of people currently living under the conditions of economic sanctions in Iran. For the privacy of the respondents, their personal information is not provided.]

Various Iranian feminist groups, anti-war and sanctions groups, scholars and the American Campaign for Peace and Democracy have advocated for the global disarmament of nuclear weapons in order to end economic sanctions and threats of war against Iran and other countries. Iranian activists have proposed the global employment of energy forms other than nuclear to prevent ecological disasters in Iran and the rest of the world. Yet, these suggested egalitarian resolutions are ignored and the economic sanctions continue deteriorating living conditions in Iran.

A thirty-five year-old female university lecturer from Tehran describes her experiences as follows:

Last year I was working for a governmental office, but became unemployed in March 2013. Sanctions have affected my life mainly in two ways: one are unaffordable life expenses, and the other is that my former boss instrumentalized the sanctions to justify late payments, lack of payments, and harsher work conditions. He explained that, due to the sanctions, the budget became tighter. He was right about the reduced budget, however, the reduction of the budget was instrumentalized by him to unequally distribute resources among the employees. Hence, those who politically differed from him received a greater share of the harshness of the conditions. The sanctions for me personally has revealed the shabby hypocrisies in this world much clearer than before. At this point, my only demand is a stop to the economic sanctions and the cruel conditions that have been imposed on us in Iran.

The History of the Economic Sanctions Against Iran and their Effects

The employment of economic sanctions against Iran dates back to the post-1979 Revolution. [1] Starting as bans on the import of Iranian crude oil into the United States (US), sanctions later developed into the banning of all imports of Iranian refined and non-oil products, followed by an embargo of US exports in the 1980s. More recently, the enactment of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act during the presidency of Bill Clinton made it so any investment in the energy sector of Iran by the US, such as the oil and gas industries, was strictly prohibited and (in the original version) any investment in Iran’s energy sector by foreign companies for more than twenty million dollars a year would result in imposition of the two out of a menu of six sanctions against those companies by the US. [2] Further sanctions against Iran’s financial sector, including Iran’s Central Bank and Tejarat Bank, have sought to cut Iran off from the global financial system and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). As a result, oil customers can no longer transfer money to Iran in American dollars, and countries such as China and India, either pay Iran in their own currencies, or export products in exchange for oil (i.e. barter transactions). Added to the economic sanctions is the Iranian state’s econo-political corruption, the recent reduction or removal of subsidies and other anti-working class economic policies. Overall, the economic sanctions have contributed to the depreciation of Iran’s currency and increasing inflation - issues that have impacted the everyday experiences of working and middle class Iranians.

Economic sanctions result in the destruction of people and the creation of worlds ”in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of the living dead.” [3] One direct effect of the economic sanctions against Iran has been the banning of the sale of civilian aircraft. Iran is prohibited from updating its thirty year-old American aircrafts, and the purchase of spare parts from European companies has become extremely difficult. The consequence of using old aircrafts has been repeated airplane crashes during the last three decades (i.e. thirteen airplane crashes happened between 2000 and 2011, with at least 1,224 people killed).

A thirty-one year-old male who works as a salesman at a bookstore in Tehran describes the current conditions (to which the economic sanctions have contributed) as follows:

The conditions of these days for me are as follows: medicines are rare, food costs an arm and a leg, unemployment is widespread, the cutting of the subsidies will continue till doomsday, smugglers are sheltered, mediators and dealers are getting fatter and fatter, boss-men and chief-executives are busy with looting, and profiteers from the sanctions are getting richer and richer every day while the rest of us suffer

Another area that the economic sanctions threaten the lives of Iranians is through a scarcity of medicine. Although the sanctions enacted by the US and the European Union claim to not impose a shortage on humanitarian trades, in reality, they have immensely affected the delivery and availability of medical supplies. The sanctions against Iran’s banking infrastructure and the exclusion of Iran from the global financial system and SWIFT have forced Iranian medical companies to use the old system of hawala (money transfer) for its transactions, causing the process to become significantly longer and more expensive. The depreciation of Iran’s currency has also contributed to shortages and skyrocketing prices of medicine, and advanced medical technologies such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines and other nuclear medical devices are banned from entering Iran. The devastation of those in need of medical care is illustrated by the image of an ill elder woman on a bed who had recently protested the high costs of healthcare and shortages of medicine in front of the presidential building in Iran.

The material and equipment used by dentists have become seven to eight times more expensive over the past year. As a result, dental care has become a privilege inaccessible to the working and middle classes. The overall outcome of these conditions has been the, “inability of pharmaceutical companies to purchase and import basic life saving medicines, ranging from Tylenol to cancer medicine and even prenatal vitamins.” The import of medicines containing antibiotics (of types that are not produced inside Iran) have been decreased by 20.7 percent and the price have been increased by 308 percent. The estimated twenty thousand patients of Thalassemia throughout the country receive only a few days of their monthly medicinal needs, and several patients with Thalassemia have died. Chemical weapon survivors, a side-effect of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, in need of medicine and equipment, including cornea transplants and inhalers, similarly suffer from a shortage or lack of medicine. In essence, the medicines used to treat Hemophilia, cancer, Thalassemia, Multiple Sclerosis and transplant and kidney dialysis are either not produced domestically, or are produced, but are not as effective as those imported from Europe and North America. The shortage of medicine for such chronic diseases often leads to death. Hence, a wave of deterioration of living conditions and destruction has been imposed on Iran by the economic sanctions, and when this wave reaches the country, it is unequally distributed among citizens, i.e. those living in poverty and the marginalized areas, and outside of the popular base of the government suffer the effects of sanctions more.

A twenty-seven year-old male university-student from Hamedan describes the situation as such:

Economic sanctions have ruined our lives. Everybody here thinks about the sanctions, and hopes that they will be removed due to the upcoming presidential election {2013 presidential election}. What is interesting is that most people don’t know the exact way that sanctions operate or that sanctions are actually intensifying as the presidential election approaches. No one dares go to dentists anymore. I had a root-canal seven years ago for fifteen Toman, but it now costs three hundred thousand Toman. The famous dentists in the city charge one million Toman. Those who care for a sick person in their home have it even harder than the rest of us. The medical equipment costs have skyrocketed. Medicine and medical equipment have declined in quality. Aluminum is no longer imported to Iran and as a result, wheelchairs, walkers, and canes have become much more expensive.

Additionally, a thirty-two year-old female currently unemployed from Rasht explains the effects of the economic sanctions in the following manner:

I was employed at a factory, but it shut down due to the recent harsh economic sanctions against Iran’s banks and imports. Economic sanctions have narrowed the options that I used to have. I often have to choose one or two among the following: visiting the doctor, buying medicine, buying clothes, going to the cinema, etc. These days when a doctor writes you a prescription, before thinking about the high-price that you will have to pay, you think about how many pharmacies you will have to walk to in order to find the medicine. If you do find it, you never know what portion of the medicine you can afford. In the laboratories and radiology offices, health insurances one after another get canceled. You sometimes have to search for words to find an expression to assuage the pain of a friend who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and is not able to purchase her medicine that now costs eleven million Toman per month (the total annual income of all her family members together is 9,600,000 Toman). The same friend doesn't want to visit the doctor again so she and her family can forget about her sickness and the desperate reliance on miracles and God. Listening to such stories have become part of our daily lives.

Economic Sanctions: The Politics of Marginalization of Political Dissidents

The violence resulting from economic sanctions against targeted people is falsely framed as a force that politicizes and revolutionizes them against their state. Targeted people are intended to become hyper-political through their forced exclusion from the political by making them economically vulnerable. In the case of economic sanctions, the relation between the targeted people and their oppressors is not a relation of power, but rather, a relation of violence. While the relation of power can be resisted from multiple points and acts on people’s actions, the relation of violence doesn’t leave a space for escape and resistance and it acts directly on people’s lives, in the case of economic sanctions, through unavailability of basic necessities and constant threats of war. [4] As a result, targeted people do not have the power to challenge and reverse their relation with their oppressors, and they would have a much harder time formulating a resistance that would turn relations of violence into relations of power. [5] The oppressors are not one entity against whom the targeted people are easily able to revolt. Instead, the forces of economic sanction imposition are a complicated composition of international and domestic powers and beneficiaries. As a result, economic sanctions make the criticism of domestic economic policies and corruption harder. Having become economically more vulnerable by sanctions and threats of war, the demands of considerable sections of the society have been narrowed to the reduction, or preferably removal, of the economic sanctions and a stop to the threats of war, i.e. the right of the world powers’ invasion of Iran.

The US-European sanctions against Iran have assisted the Iranian state in positing itself as an anti-imperialist entity, resisting the unjust global relations, while simultaneously being part of the same global relations in regulating anti-working class economic policies, receiving praises from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and deepening class divisions in Iran. The notion of foreign intervention, i.e. the economic sanctions and the threats of war against Iran, has assisted the government to articulate a discourse of national reconciliation without enacting any meaningful recognition of alternative political voices and demands. The threats of war and deteriorating living conditions, due to economic sanctions, have marginalized the voices that demand structural econo-political changes and reform of laws. It is impossible to lead a good life under the economic sanctions, hence the state does not need to negotiate with political dissidents or recognize their citizen rights and a political space for political dissidence. Rather, it needs only to refer to the imposed economic sanctions and threats of war to solidify its discourse of national reconciliation and the necessity for the political activists to postpone their criticism of domestic affairs.

A thirty-three year-old female high-school teacher from Mazandaran explains her experience as follows:

A few months ago, I had a continuous sickness and I had difficulty finding my medicine. I was told that this was the result of economic sanctions. These days, one of my biggest worries is for a friend or a relative to be diagnosed with cancer or a similar illness. I used to care about the number of newspapers and magazines (critical of the establishment) published daily in the country; I used to care for the rights of this or that group. Having seen the suffering of my dear ones due to the economic sanctions however, my first and foremost priority is now the removal of the sanctions.

The violation of human rights does not improve the citizen rights

The representation of economic sanctions as an inevitable tool of control over Iran’s nuclear energy capabilities has disguised, or naturalized, the deaths and ruinations that the sanctions have caused. The destructive effects of the sanctions are understood as inescapable consequences of the Iranian government’s potential future threat against Europe and North America. [6] The global nuclear disarmament and global green energy, preventing disasters, are alternatives to sending sanctions against people in Iran, yet they are ignored and totally denied. Instead, in order to prevent the potential threat, the lives of Iranians and their society must be destroyed. Hence, sanction-sending countries justify the collective punishment against targeted people (i.e. to establish their lives as dispensable and ungrievable [7]) in the name of preserving and sheltering the lives in the West, depicting them as grievable and worth saving. In reality, however, many lives in the West, based on race, social class, citizenship status, etc., are also constituted as ungrievable.

In some accounts, the violation of the citizen rights of Iranian people has been mentioned as another cause for economic sanctions; arguing that sanctions restrict the power of Iran’s government both domestically and regionally. In other words, the violation of Iranians’ human rights by economic sanctions and threats of war is justified in the interest of the eventual improvement of citizen rights in Iran. However, the violation of human rights contributes, or in some cases is indistinguishable from, the violation of Iranian peoples’ civil rights. The global violation of human rights often occurs to people who have become vulnerable by the violation or suspension of their civil rights. Balibar argues, "... man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man”[8] and “If the destruction of civil rights also destroys human rights, this is because the latter are based on the former, and not the reverse...” [9] The economic sanctions remove the necessities that the targeted state could formerly provide for the citizens resulting in further destruction of the citizen rights of the targeted people. The further violation of the civil rights of the targeted people (through scarcity of basic needs, etc.) leads to further destruction of their human rights. As a result, sanctions make it harder for the citizens to demand their already violated citizen rights, and they are pushed further to a zone of citizen rightlessness. Consequently, they become more injurable and susceptible to the human rights violations of the sanction-sending countries and their state.The imposition of hyper-economic vulnerability on the people in the targeted country reduces the lives to a struggle for day to day economic survival. The state repression can result in formation of various forms of resistance and politicization of the citizens, the economic sanctions, however, push the people to a daily struggle to remain alive and consequently there will be less possibility to struggle for a politically qualified life.

The violation of human rights of the people in the targeted country, in the name of preserving the rights of the people in Western societies, indicates the non-universality of the discourse of human rights in the practice of the global powers. Consequently, it indicates that the human rights are not pre-politically given to all people equally. The violation of human rights, in the name of protesting the violation of the citizen rights of the people in the targeted country, indicates the false notion of the complete duality of citizen rights and universal human rights. Furthermore, the harsh living conditions imposed by economic sanctions, threats of war and the state’s increasing repression and corruption have resulted in a vast new wave of Iranian refugees all over the world, deprived of their basic human rights. As Balibar explains:

What destroys their legitimacy from the inside is also the fact that the same powers who carry on or decide most of humanitarian interventions (mainly in the space of ex-colonial empires) are also nowadays waging a latent war against refugees and migrants on or outside the borders of their sovereign territories.

In the targeted country, rights are reduced to the right of medicine, nutrition, and security. And, every single aspect of the political life has to assume a stance with regards to such imposed conditions. The economic sanctions push the targeted people to a zone of ungrievability [10] and indistinction between life and death.[11] Hence, if economic sanctions lead to a humanitarian war, the targeted lives are already destroyed and do not fully count as living. Moreover, the economic sanctions push the targeted people (with already violated citizen rights) to a zone of further vulnerability and rightlessness. [12]

The Politics of the Removal of Food and Medicine that Receives No Proportional Attention

A forty year-old (male) owner of a publishing company from Tehran describes his experiences:

The government of Iran unequally distributes wealth among the Iranian people. The sanctions have decreased the budget of the government and have deteriorated the financial system in Iran. The insufficient share of the country's wealth that we ordinary citizens receive is being justified by the sanctions. The economic sanctions also help the government to justify its violent policies and corruption. The effect of economic sanctions at work for me as a publisher has been very negative. The price of paper and publishing services has gone up and less people buy books, as they struggle to pay for their daily basic necessities. As a result, the shops that deal with food products might be in better conditions than my job. The well-to-do are going crazy with buying commodities, anticipating to sell them later at a profit. The worth of Iran's currency is going down and the prices are skyrocketing. All I worry about these days is whether I will be able to pay for my rent next year. Desperateness, depression, anxiety, and debt are the conditions of these days.

Economic sanctions are often framed as targeting only those responsible for the conflict. This framing conceals the reality of the sanctions, and portrays them as effective and an ethical form of violence. It also prevents the issue from gaining attention in the global media as a form of war. As discussed above, the reality of sanctions has been widespread violence against civilians. Although economic sanctions are often framed as the least violent instrument, their truth of collective punishment (i.e. being sanctions of mass destruction)[13] is sometimes articulated by politicians, such as US Senator Mark Kirk. In an interview with a local Chicago radio station, Senator Kirk was asked about the effects of economic sanctions on the citizens of Iran and he responded, “It’s okay to take the food out of the mouths of the citizens {Iranian citizens} from a government that’s plotting an attack directly on American soil.”

Similar arguments regarding the starvation of citizens for political purposes are made, such as the following by an Israeli official, “Iran's citizens should be starved in order to curb Tehran's nuclear program,”... “North Korea is halting its nuclear program in order to receive aid in food, and this is what should be done with Iran as well.

The violence of the imposed economic sanctions spreads itself over all everyday activities of the targeted people. Hence, the economic sanctions become naturalized for the outside observers through the everyday characteristic of sanctions. The economic sanctions do not kill with bomb explosions. Rather, they kill gradually through the lack of medicine, impoverishment, and the general unavailability of life necessities. Throughout the process, the targeted people are faced with a day to day struggle to survive, and are consequently restricted from leading a politically qualified life.


The imposition of death and destruction on the targeted population is framed by the global media and establishments of the sanction-sending countries as a tool to prevent the potential death of people in the West. This framing produces a sharp division between people under sanctions and those protected from a future threat. Moreover, it constitutes the imposition of destruction on the targeted population as the only solution to protect the lives in the West against a future threat, despite the egalitarian resolution of global disarmament offered by numerous Iranian and American groups, activists and scholars. This interpretation of conditions, through restricting the political imaginations and division of lives, posits the lives of the targeted population as obstacles to the lives in the West.

One could ask the question why the imprisonment of Iranian citizens for political issues by their state is legitimately considered an act of violence committed by the state throughout the world, yet the removal of food, medicine, 1224 deaths within eleven years due to the airplane crashes, and considerable deterioration of living conditions by the economic sanctions are merely mentioned as violence, and often justified for various political goals. The equation of economic sanctions with the weakening of the targeted state and the ruination of the living conditions of the targeted population with that of the protection of the lives in the West, regulate the affect for the audience of the global media in a way that the violence of sanctions becomes seen as legitimate or unavoidable. Moreover, the targeted population is often othered to a point that its suffered pain, injuries and vulnerabilities are outside the responsibility of the citizens of the sanction sending countries. To resist against this policy of imposition of destruction therefore, is to oppose the reality, or in this case fantasy, produced by the framing[14] of the policy makers of the economic sanctions sending countries and emphasize the reality that is left outside their frame and dominant interpretations.

There is an ongoing political struggle in Iran in which some of its conductors are currently imprisoned and many others are exiled. Iran’s prisons are a major site of political resistance and a space for hope, transformative criticism, and imagination of what-is-not-here-yet. The voices from Iran’s prisons are under attack from both Iran’s state and the sanction-sending countries. News of prisoners’ hunger strikes, analyses of econo-political conditions, and statements in condemnation of maltreatments of Iran’s political dissidents and prisoners come out of Iran’s prisons almost on a weekly basis. Economic sanctions and the threats of war are marginalizing these voices and their causes in favor of the state’s discourse of national reconciliation for gathering all (i.e. the ruling class, state-elites, and the people from different econo-political backgrounds) over protecting Iran against foreign interventions. The only hope is a stop to the economic sanctions and the threats of war against Iran that can result in a shift of focus from the conflicts of establishments to Iranians’ political dreams, demands, and imagination of the not-yet-here.

[1] The use of economic sanctions has become increasingly common since the Cold War. The most extreme example of sanctions during this period has taken place in Iraq. As John Mueller and Karl Mueller argue in Sanctions of Mass Destruction, the total number of deaths resulting from the use of the weapons of mass destruction throughout history (“excluding the deaths of non combatants in the Nazi gas chambers”) has been less than the deaths resulting from economic sanctions against Iraq. Mueller, John, and Karl Mueller. "Sanctions of Mass Destruction." Foreign Affairs. : 154-157. (accessed June 11, 2013).

[2] For more details, see here.

[3] Achille Mbembe: “Moreover I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead” Achille Mbembe, "Necropolitics," Public Culture 15(1): 11–40 (2003).

[4] The relations of violence are directly subjected onto people and the resistance is impossible, versus the relations of power can be resisted from multiple points of resistance: “Where the determining factors are exhaustive, there is no relationship of power: slavery is not a power relationship when a man is in chains, only when he has some possible mobility, even a chance of escape ....” From: Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 3: Power, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 2000)

[5] Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 3: Power, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 2000)

[6] The potential nuclear capacity of Iran’s government and their possible motives (what they would do if they could) do not factor into the equation derived by sanction-sending countries. Brian Masoumi explains that, “preemptive logic is not subject to the same rules of non-contradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and is reluctant to attribute an effective reality to futurity,” because, “it operates on an affective register and inhabits a nonlinear time operating recursively between the present and the future.” Quote from: Melissa Gregg;Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader (Kindle Locations 796-798). Kindle Edition.

[7] “Ungrievable lives are those that can not be lost, and can not be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone...”: Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, (NY: Verso, 2009).

[8] Etienne Balibar (2013). On the Politics of Human Rights. Constellations 20 (1):18-26.

[9] “It thus equates in principle generic humanity and citizenship, implying a juridical adequation of the ‘‘rights of man’’ and the ‘‘rights of the citizen.’’ It is thus, if you will, the principle of democratic constitution of the constitution in its typically modern universalist conception. From: Etienne Balibar (2013). On the Politics of Human Rights. Constellations 20 (1):18-26.

[10] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, (NY: Verso, 2009).

[11] The sanction-sending countries practice modern sovereignty by dictating which individuals can live, which lives are obstacles to the rest of the living and consequently they must be destroyed.

[12] and the economic sanctions subsequently give space to the discourse of all the options are on the table including a military strike against a targeted country (i.e. the “right of invasion”) under the justification of rehabilitating the rights of the rightless people. “right of invasion” is used by Jacques Rancière here: Jacques Rancière, "Who is the Subject of Human Rights," in South Atlantic Quarterly 2/3, Spring 2004.

[13] Mueller, John, and Karl Mueller. "Sanctions of Mass Destruction." Foreign Affairs. : 154-157. (accessed June 11, 2013)

[14] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, (NY: Verso, 2009).

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