With hopes of reviving the 2015 landmark Iran Nuclear Deal dwindling, the subject of U.S. sanctions policy and its fallout require greater attention. The Biden administration has not only maintained the failed policies of their predecessors, but also doubled down on those policies with the recent addition of more sanctions on Iran. This announcement comes as discussions in Washington about military options and ‘plan b’ continue to grow. Despite ubiquitous promises to end endless wars from both Democrat and Republican administrations, the policies imposed on Iran reflect a shared imperialist logic that sees sanctions and war as corresponding strategies with the same ultimate goal: to render the submission of the targeted state. It is a point of irony that U.S. officials use the language of human rights and international law to justify policies that intentionally hurt civilians and to mask the actual objectives of such policies.
Woodrow Wilson, one of the architects of modern sanctions, described sanctions as an “economic, peaceful, silent, deadly [and] terrible remedy,” which “does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted.” Wilson’s admission that sanctions are deadly is telling, as seen inside the nations targeted where sanctions often lead to violence, human rights abuses, and extreme poverty. However, the idea that they are peaceful belies the evidence on the ground. In fact—as the example of Iran shows—broad-based sanctions are not an alternative to war, but rather a part of the war effort intended to pressure and devastate a civilian population while securing concessions through force.
While sanctions were originally intended as a tool to avert war and target specific actors to hold them accountable to international law, the abuse of this tool and its uneven imposition have made it an instrument with consequences not unlike warfare. They also appear to have become a tool that U.S. policymakers rely on too often with little space for diplomatic measures. In fact, for some U.S. policymakers, crushing blanket-sanctions—which human rights experts argue constitute a “serious threat to human rights and dignity”—have come to be understood as diplomacy itself. In a recent opinion piece co-authored by Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham—both opponents of the Iran Nuclear Deal—they claim to have “consistently supported diplomacy backed by sanctions [emphasis added].”
The idea that policies which cause undue harm to civilians and devastate the lives of ordinary people are analogous to diplomacy is rooted in imperialist reasoning, which sees the actions of more powerful states as impervious to a system of rules or international law meant to protect those very civilians. It is no surprise then, that broad-based sanctions have increasingly been imposed by dominant states in the Global North—particularly the most powerful country in the world, the United States—in a selective manner to exert political pressure for geopolitical interests.
In the case of Iran—now the second most-sanctioned nation in the world—country-wide sanctions have been used as another tool of U.S. intervention—though Iranians are aware of more overt interventions such as the 1953 coup against Iran’s popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Since 1979, the United States has imposed sanctions on Iran to varying degrees to limit “Iran’s strategic power in the Middle East more generally” and more recently to force Iran “to agree to limits to its nuclear program.” The sanctions imposed on Iran in recent years are particularly cruel given the brief respite of hope brought by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international nuclear deal with Iran, which promised Iran economic relief after decades of comprehensive sanctions that were ratcheted up during President Obama’s first term.
The sanctions have most often targeted Iran’s oil, energy sectors, and financial institutions. In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOAand imposed wide-scale sanctions on the country. The strategy was “maximum pressure” to cause suffering for ordinary Iranians and foment political unrest. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted: “we are convinced [the sanctions] will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” Most of these sanctions continue under President Biden.However, the Biden administration and other world powers are negotiating with Iran to potentially restore the JCPOA by resuming U.S. participation, bringing all parties back into compliance, and thus lifting the sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal.
The economic impact of United States sanctions on Iran cannot be overstated. Current sanctions were intended to cause “mounting financial isolation and economic stagnation.” The sanctions, which prevent Iran from selling crude oil and metals abroad, have directly impacted the economy, causing inflation and unemployment. Following the re-implementation of sanctions in 2018, the Iranian rial dropped sharply, losing approximately 70% of its value. Although the official currency rate is 42,000 rials/1 USD, the unofficial rate is 306,000 rials/1 USD as of December 2, 2021. Inflation has soared, and many Iranians struggle to buy groceries, medicine, and other basic necessities. For the past several days, rising food prices have even triggered protests across Iran as many Iranians are desperate for an end to their economic hardships. In addition, the unemployment rate in Iran was 9.6% for the third quarter of 2021. However, this number only accounts for people who are in the “active” labor force, those who are employable and able to take part in economic activity but are unable to find jobs. Many people are not considered “active” due to low economic participation. The true unemployment numbers are likely much higher as only 13.4 million out of 84 million Iranians have full-time jobs, and less than 9 million Iranians have part-time jobs.
While the sanctions imposed on Iran nominally target specific purchases and sales, the result is near total financial isolation. The sanctions are extraterritorial in nature, meaning they are designed to penalize any third party engaged in dealings with the target country. To avoid being found at fault, international actors not only comply, but often do more than is required under the sanctions, a situation known as overcompliance. Due to the extraterritorial sanctions, financial institutions may refuse to transact with the country to avoid high fines for accidentally approving transactions subject to sanctions. For instance, the United Kingdom’s “Standard Chartered Bank” was fined $1.099 billion for violating a sanction by trading with Iran. Individuals can also be criminally prosecuted for failure to follow the rules. As a result, it is difficult and risky for individuals to send money or resources directly to Iran.
Sanctions have also hindered Iranians’ access to healthcare and medication. Rather than easing sanctions amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration increased its pressure on Iran. In April 2020, the United States announced it would block the $5 billion IMF loan that Iran requested to help fight COVID-19. Iran has been striving towards universal health care, and approximately 96% of Iranians are covered by government insurance plans with limited out of pocket costs. However, by restricting the sale of crude oil and limiting access to loans, sanctions have also limited the government’s ability to spend money on healthcare.
Certain medications are no longer imported to Iran, making it difficult for patients to access the same level of treatment. Although the country is able to manufacture 97% of its medicine needs, the 3% of medicines that it traditionally imports include life-saving medications for serious conditions such as cancer. Additionally, about 70% of the country’s medical equipment is imported. Iranians with conditions that require specialized treatment are the worst-affected. One European company refused to sell specialized bandages for epidermolysis bullosa, a rare and painful disease, to Iran due to the risk of secondary sanctions. Similarly, transplant medications, though vital, are now rare and expensive.
The United States has technically carved out certain humanitarian exemptions in its sanctions’ regime for “agricultural commodities, food, medicine, and medical devices to Iran.” However, there are significant obstacles towards the full realization of those exemptions. For instance, up to 40 percent of the Iranian economy is run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—a branch of the Iranian military—and its front companies. The United States has designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and determined that they are not subject to any humanitarian exemptions, making those exemptions inapplicable to a large segment of the Iranian economy. The Biden administration issued guidance authorizing transactions of supplies and technologies used to treat, prevent, or diagnose COVID-19 and permitting some previously-barred transactions with the Iranian central bank. However, this did not take place until June 17, 2021— over a year into the pandemic.
A company that seeks to trade with Iran for exempted items must find a bank subject to the exemption that has a relationship with a Turkish or European bank in order to process the payment, often with high transaction costs. This system also requires Iran to use its foreign reserves—which come from the sale of oil and metal exports which are now subject to sanctions. Since the country is cut off from the international banking system, making international purchases can take weeks. Often, Iranian pharmaceutical companies are forced to reroute transactions through an informal network that relies on existing relationships to make payments without transferring money. However, this increases transaction costs and is difficult to use. Some importers have turned to alternative, lower-quality sources instead, which has led to decreased drug efficacy and unexpected toxicity.
A common argument by proponents of sanctions is that economic hardship drives popular action against hardliners, as illustrated by the 2013 election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani or by the people’s uprisings in 2017. This connection, however, is tenuous, as Iranian constituents had elected moderate candidates at various points before the sanctions’ effects on the economy were felt and as U.S. sanctions were suspended at the time the aforementioned uprisings took place.
Rather, sanctions have just the opposite effect. The “maximum pressure” campaign led by the Trump Administration played into the hands of ultraconservatives and frustrated the efforts of President Rouhani, playing an important part in landslide victories by various hardliners in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2020 and 2021 respectively.
What this shows is the effect that U.S. sanctions are having not only in impoverishing the material conditions of any possible internal opposition but also in providing the state hardliners with a narrative presenting them as a line of defense against imperialist aggression or, at the very least, as a means of subsistence in the face of harsh economic conditions. Polling by the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland University in September 2021 showed that three-fourths of Iranians see the U.S. very unfavorably, approximately 70% see the U.S. as trying to block humanitarian items from reaching Iran, and approximately 70% believe that the U.S. could take meaningful action by lifting sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank or by removing the obstacles preventing Iran from purchasing vaccines and vaccine ingredients.
Moreover, sanctions not only strengthen the human rights abusers but also severely undermine their opposition. For instance, activists have had to resort to work multiple jobs to provide for their families, leaving them with less time to organize any substantial resistance to an increasingly complex and militarized state. Additionally, women’s rights organizers have found themselves without sufficient resources to participate in international conferences, with the result of having their movements severed from the struggle across their borders and ultimately confined within an isolated territory controlled by hostile forces working to eliminate women’s studies and research and to severely limit the presence of women in higher education. Charity organizations have also seen their functions heavily impaired, if not outright ended, due to the difficulties in transferring funds for health, medical, and education efforts, as well as support for women and children. All of these accounts are supported by empirical evidence exploring the counterproductive effect of sanctions in crippling the political viability of internal dissent.
As a group of Iranian women’s movement activists and women’s rights defenders explained in a letter condemning the sanctions, “[i]n an environment where people are working primarily to survive and feed their families, human rights and defense of civil society become luxury demands.” Journalists, human rights activists, and the women’s, workers’, and teachers’ movements have joined in calling for the lifting of economic pressure so they may organize for their liberation from government repression. Political prisoner and civil rights activist Narges Mohammadi has similarly expressed that U.S. sanctions pose a challenge to achieving democracy in Iran, a view also supported by empirical research.
The Iranian state has justified its increased violence by accusing activists of colluding with Western imperialists to erode the traditional Islamic values guiding the Islamic Republic, further obfuscating the chaotic narrative and material destruction brought about by U.S. sanctions in its own favor.
Furthermore, the gaps left by various private firms such as Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services, Digital Ocean, and the Apple App Store to avoid the sanctions have allowed the Iranian government to take over key security technologies, granting the state the power to develop its own cybernetic capabilities to censor and monitor the communications of its citizenry as part of its “national internet” project. According to the National Iranian American Council, “[t]he result is that Iranians increasingly lack the tools they need to circumvent government filters and have no choice but to use state-backed platforms, servers, and data infrastructure.” The ramping up of this repressive apparatus has particularly victimized marginalized communities, including refugees, women, and queer and trans folks–the latter of which also suffer from the financial inaccessibility of gender-affirming care due to worsening economic conditions.
The situation in Iran exemplifies how the application of broad-based economic sanctions can cause massive harm to a state’s people and economy. U.S. sanctions predominantly hurt everyday people and undermine human rights, while threatening the livelihoods of millions of people in the Global South in a manner akin to war. The cruelty of this policy has been brought to the fore with the devastating impact of the COVID-19 global health crisis and reflected in the fact that two U.S. administrations have ignored international calls to lift sanctions in light of the pandemic. But the brutality of U.S. sanctions’ policy is most evident in the decision to freeze Afghanistan’s central bank assets in the wake of a 20-year U.S. war, which puts millions of Afghans at risk of starvation. Such collective punishment is not a policy position; it is a crime against humanity.