Sanctions against Iran and the logic of collective punishment

“Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

–US Rep. Brad Sherman (Hill, 9 August 2010)

“Let’s be clear, sanctions have to hurt. If they don’t hurt, they’re not effective. The goal is not for us to pat ourselves on the back and issue press releases in here; it’s to inflict crippling economic pain over there. Iran’s banking sector needs become the financial equivalent of Chernobyl—radioactive, dangerous and most of all, empty.”

–US Rep. Gary Ackerman (Statement from Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing, 14 October 2011)

“This president ended the war in Iraq, re-doubled our efforts against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, killed Osama bin Laden, decimated al-Qaeda and the Taliban and we moved forth our country is safer because of it. And look. You need not look any farther than Iran. When this president walked in the office, there was a unanimous ideas on the international community about strong international sanctions. We now have the strong sanctions. Iran’s economy is decimated. Their currency has collapsed. Their oil revenues have collapsed and we are on the point where we now have significant strong leverage against Iran that we didn’t have when the president walked in.”

–Ex-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs (MSNBC, Hardball, 22 October 2012)

As the US assumes a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear program and the Obama administration comes under greater pressure to project strength in its foreign policy, there is a vast amount of evidence to show that the US–through its sanctions regime–is intentionally undermining the average Iranian’s standard of living as a matter of policy. Despite the declarations of concern and even solidarity for the Iranian people and the official exemptions for food and medicine under the sanctions, there can be little doubt that the US is attempting to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program by making its people suffer.

Consider the following exchange between reporters and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland (Daily Press Briefing, 1 October 2012):

QUESTION: Iran. The Iranian currency has lost about a quarter of its value in the last week alone. Is the Department pleased to see this? It seems to reflect the efficacy of the sanctions against Iran. Are you dismayed by it, or what is your view?
[…]
MS. NULAND: our understanding is that the Iranian currency has dropped to a historic low today against the dollar in informal currency trading. This despite some frantic efforts by the Iranian Government last week to try to prop it up, rearrange the way it dealt with these issues. From our perspective, this speaks to the unrelenting and increasingly successful international pressure that we are all bringing to bear on the Iranian economy. It’s under incredible strain. Iran is increasingly cut off from the global financial system. Significant amounts of Iranian oil is also coming off the market. As you said, the currency is plummeting. And firms all over the world are refusing to do business with Iranian companies. […] So this speaks to the fact that we have said these are the most punishing sanctions we have ever been able to amass as an international community, and they are very important for trying to get Iran’s attention on the important denuclearization work.
[…]
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have any concern about the effects – the ill effects that the severe depreciation in the currency may have on the Iranian people? When it’s trading – it’s I think something like 32,000 to 1, that inevitably is going to fuel inflation for anything that is imported. Does it bother you that this may hurt the Iranian people?

MS. NULAND: Well, any depreciation of currency is always going to affect the people who use the currency. The issue here are the choices that the Iranian Government is making, and this is the issue, that the Iranian Government needs to make different choices with regard to its nuclear program if it wants to get into a conversation with us about a step-by-step process, including on the sanctions side.
[…]
QUESTION: Now, obviously, the Iranian Government, at least for the time being, is very stubborn; it will remain so. So at what point it becomes really a moral question that the people – 80 million-plus – should suffer so severely because of the stubbornness of their government?

MS. NULAND: Again, we want the Iranian people as well to understand that this is a direct response to the choices that their government has made in the context of the international community offering them a diplomatic way out, which they should take.

The reasoning here is basically identical to the reasoning offered for destroying Iraq’s infrastructure in the 1991 Gulf War and preventing them from rebuilding it through draconian sanctions: that the people must be punished so that the government is undermined.

“The reason you take out electricity is because modern societies depend on it so heavily and therefore modern militaries depend on it so heavily. It’s a leveraged target set. People say, ‘You didn’t recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage. Well, what were we trying to do with [United Nations-approved economic] sanctions–help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of the sanctions.”

–US Air Force officer involved in planning Gulf War (Washington Post, 23 June 1991)

It appears that this time around, US officials are careful to avoid mentioning basic necessities of life such as electricity and water so as to not seem callous. Nevertheless, the actual reality of the situation on the ground in Iran should evoke some sense of sympathy from Western observers when portrayed accurately.

Consider the fact that the sanctions are widely blamed for shortages of medicines and medical equipment in Iran. The Financial Times (4 September 2012) reported that the sanctions are “increasingly hitting vulnerable medical patients as deliveries of medicine and raw materials for Iranian pharmaceutical companies are either stopped or delayed, according to medical experts.” Similarly, the Guardian (17 October 2012) cited claims made by the head of the Charity Foundation for Special Diseases, Iran’s largest medical charity with over 6 million patients,  that “we have a lack of medicines for patients suffering from cancer and multiple sclerosis. Those with thalassaemia or in need of dialysis are facing difficulties too–all because of sanctions against banks or problems with transferring foreign currency.”

There is the case of Milad, an 8-year-old hemophiliac who relies on a US-manufactured injection that his family finds is hard to come by in Iran. Even after his parents took him on a 12-hour bus ride to Tehran in the hopes of finding the medicine, he was only given two-days’ worth. Milad now faces the possibility of “losing the use of his right leg and is suffering continuous nose bleeds that could be life-threatening.” The head of an NGO called the Iranian Hemophilia Society, which serves about 8,000 patients, claims that “access to medicine has become increasingly limited and [that] one young man recently died in southern Iran after an accident when the blood-clotting injection he needed was not available.” He called the sanctions “blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people by countries which claim they care about human rights.”

A member of another NGO called the Tehran Province Thalassemia Association, which serves about 20,000 patients, asserts that the organization only receives “enough medicine to cover just a few days of their monthly needs.” She also knew of “four deaths in Tehran over the past month that were a result of the shortage of medicine for thalassemia patients.”

An advisor to the Iran Charity Association to Support Kidney Patients, which helps 65,000 patients, also said that his NGO faces a worsening shortage of equipment for kidney dialysis and transplants.

Although the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the US Treasury Department allows food and medicine to be exported to Iran with proper licenses, there are numerous problems with this system. As one importer put it, “the exemption of medicine from sanctions is only in theory. International banks do not accept Iran’s money for fear of facing US punishment.”

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged the scale of the crisis:

The sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran have had significant effects on the general population, including an escalation in inflation, a rise in commodities and energy costs, an increase in the rate of unemployment and a shortage of necessary items, including medicine. A number of Iranian non-governmental organizations and activists have expressed concerns about the growing impact of sanctions on the population and have noted that inflation, rising prices of commodities, subsidy cuts and sanctions are compounding each other and having far-reaching effects on the general population. They report, for instance, that people do not have access to lifesaving medicines. Furthermore, since the sanctions extend to banking transactions, many foreign banks have stopped doing business with the Islamic Republic of Iran altogether, which has made it considerably difficult for Iranians to transfer funds and for private business to obtain lines of credit.

The sanctions also appear to be affecting humanitarian operations in the country. Even companies that have obtained the requisite licence to import food and medicine are facing difficulties in finding third-country banks to process the transactions. Owing to payment problems, several medical companies have stopped exporting medicines to the Islamic Republic of Iran, leading to a reported shortage of drugs used in the treatment of various illnesses, including cancer, heart and respiratory conditions, thalassemia and multiple sclerosis (Report of the Secretary-General, 22 August 2012).

It has been speculated by Muhammad Sahimi that sanctions could end up killing tens of thousands–and possibly hundreds of thousands–of Iranians based on an analysis of medical statistics for various diseases (AntiWar.com, 9 August 2012).

Other results of the sanctions regime include:

Plane Crashes: Sanctions implemented by President Clinton in 1995 are blamed for depriving the country of much-needed civilian airplanes and spare parts. This has likely resulted in numerous plane crashes that have killed more than 1,700 passengers and crew members (New York Times, 13 July 2012).

Charity Criminalization: In the mid-1990s a US resident named Mehrdad Yasrebi founded the Child Foundation (CF) to aid poor children in Iran, Afghanistan and various other countries. In 2008, the federal government launched coordinated raids on his home and workplace and threatened him with 20-25 years in prison for allegedly “cooperating with a terrorist organization.” He eventually plead guilty to lesser charges and was spared prison time by judge Garr M. King, who stated at Yasrebi’s sentencing hearing that:

There is no substantive evidence of — that defendants were in any way assisting the Government of Iran or any terrorist organization. There are activities and suppositions which the Government has reported, but the Court notes that after, roughly, over eight years of investigation, no substantive evidence was developed. Other than that, Mr. Yasrebi and Child Foundation were engaged in furnishing humanitarian assistance to children and were not supporting any regime or terrorist activity. […] There’s no evidence, that the Court can see, of any specific harm to national security (Transcript of sentencing hearing, 6 March 2012, pp. 85-86).

Regardless of this partial exoneration, Yasrebi and his family suffered serious stigmatization and financial costs. Mehrdad Yasrebi himself lost his job and may face deportation or other immigration enforcement actions since he is not a US citizen. No doubt, the case has created a chill effect that lingers in the minds of any other individual or charity group that wishes to aid Iranian children (Foreign Policy In Focus, 5 April 2012; Oregonian, 6 March 2012).

As Americans, we are all capable of learning about the human suffering that these policies cause and read the plainly worded statements of our government officials stating that they fully intend to bring about human suffering. So in the end we are all complicit in enabling these acts of economic warfare against the innocent people of Iran, whose rights to national self-determination and sovereignty are being violated just as their access to decent medical care and humanitarian aid are being cut off.

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