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Home/Daniel Larison/Our Iniquitous Economic Wars

Our Iniquitous Economic Wars

Eli Clifton reminds us that cruel collective punishment of Iran has always been the purpose of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration:

The calls for economic collapse, military strikes, cheering food shortages, and demanding more “maximum pressure” come at a severe humanitarian cost. But for many in the Trump administration and their allies, that’s precisely the point, which explains why, up until now at least, that President Trump has refused to suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Broad sectoral sanctions that strangle a country’s economy can only be intended to harm and punish the population as a whole. Depriving the most vulnerable people in a country of access to essential medicine and cutting off the supply of ingredients that their own pharmaceutical companies need to produce their own drugs are the predictable and inevitable consequences of seeking to isolate and penalize an entire nation. This policy is indiscriminate by design and it hurts the poorest and sickest individuals hardest. This was true long before the outbreak, but the pandemic has shone a bright light on just how iniquitous our government’s use of sanctions really is. Like a siege, economic war saps a country’s resources, lowers the population’s resistance to disease, and deprives them of access to vital necessities, but it does so on a much grander scale and instead of trying to starve a fortress or city into submission it seeks to starve a state with tens of millions of people. If the means are cruel and wrong, the goal is fanatical and destructive. Iran hawks seek nothing less than the destabilization and collapse of the government and creating the chaos that would inevitably follow from that. That is why they hope to exploit the pandemic to pursue their obsession with regime change:

Yet some members of the Trump administration have speculated that with all the challenges Iran faces — the sanctions, a teetering economy, disputed elections and animosity over the violent suppression of protests — the coronavirus epidemic might be the thing that pushes the regime from power at last.

Trying to use a horrifying outbreak of a virus to achieve this goal is just the latest part of an ugly campaign to starve and bludgeon another nation into capitulating to their will.

Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute describes how sanctions exposed Iran to greater danger from the virus and impaired their ability to keep it under control:

Iran is one of the countries that has been hit hardest by Covid-19, with over 18,000 cases reported, the third-highest total after China and Italy, and over 1,200 recorded deaths as of March 19. Iran’s vulnerability to the virus is the result of a combination of forces and factors. As a result of US-led sanctions, Iran has become increasingly dependent on China, which made the government hesitate to distance the country from China during the initial phase of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Moreover, US sanctions have also weakened Iran’s health care sector, complicating the importation of basic items like masks and disinfectant, and dissuading pharmaceutical companies from selling to Iran. Even before the outbreak, a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch found that “restrictions on financial transactions drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports,” including medicines and medical equipment.

Added to all this is the fact that the economic war has already wrought significant damage on the Iranian economy. Many other countries that have been hit by large outbreaks of the virus had enjoyed fairly decent economic growth prior to the shutdowns that combating the virus required. Iran was starved of the resources it would need to undertake similar measures, and it remains largely cut off from sources of financing and aid that could help them to weather the storm. Other countries had more resources to fall back on to cushion the blow from the pandemic, but Iran’s cushion was stolen from them by years of sanctions. Iran’s situation was made worse by their government’s own incompetence and slow response, but as we can see governments of all different kinds have been caught flat-footed and have responded poorly to this new phenomenon. Iran is one of the few countries that has to deal with the effects of an economic war against them at the same time that they cope with a pandemic. As always, the people that suffer most because of this are the innocent and the sick.

The AP reports on the effect that sanctions are having on both Iran and Venezuela:

U.S. officials have brushed aside the criticism, saying that the sanctions allow the delivery of food and medicine. But most experts say shipments don’t materialize as Western companies are leery of doing business with either of the two governments.

“In most cases, compliance by banks makes it virtually impossible to do business,” said Jason Poblete, a sanctions lawyer in Washington who has represented American citizens held in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.

Venezuela has so far reported only a few cases of coronavirus, but the argument for lifting sanctions on Venezuela is even stronger than it is for Iran. Venezuela had already suffered an even longer, more debilitating humanitarian crisis before the pandemic, and sanctions have made it worse. There is widespread malnutrition and the health care system has deteriorated significantly. Venezuela will need all the help it can get if the virus continues to spread, and the least that the U.S. can do is to stop waging economic war on them.

The humanitarian exemptions to sanctions don’t work in practice, and one reason for that is that the administration doesn’t do the work of explaining to foreign firms and governments how to make use of them:

“The U.S. has to do a lot of work to make sure institutions understand it’s safe, otherwise no one wants to touch it,” Blanc said, while adding that he doesn’t think U.S. sanctions are to blame for the growing outbreak in Iran. “This administration has done the opposite by scaring off humanitarian aid. The messaging they’re sending is that there’s no way you can do the proper due diligence for something like this.”

Lifting sanctions would remove all doubt about this. The U.S. has it in its power to lift the sanctions and lighten the burden that the Iranian people have to bear, but because our Iran policy is being set by fanatics that won’t happen.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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