Home/Daniel Larison/Sanctions Destroy Hope and Strengthen Repression

Sanctions Destroy Hope and Strengthen Repression

The Washington Postreports on the effects of cruel U.S. sanctions on Iran:

“Personally, I have lost hope for my life,” said Marjan, 42, a Tehran architect.

The economic war on Iran destroys not only the wealth and earnings of ordinary Iranians, but in the process it also takes away their hopes and aspirations for a better life. Iran sanctions amount to stealing the future from more than eighty million people. People in Iran are forced to do what they must to survive, and in practice that means that their opportunities are sharply reduced, their prospects grow worse, and their hardship steadily increases. It can’t be emphasized enough that our government is destroying the lives of countless innocent people in another country for no good reason. The article continues:

This article is based on interviews with a dozen Iranians of various walks of life, most of them contacted by telephone inside the country. Nearly all asked to be identified only by their first names to avoid drawing government attention.

The stories they told of dashed hopes, lost jobs and scarce goods — including medical and food supplies ostensibly exempt from sanctions — were strikingly similar, as were their descriptions of a sort of nationwide apathy after the flickers of optimism that came with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Sanctions are often presented as less aggressive than military action, but they are an unprovoked siege on the economy of an entire nation with all of the attendant suffering that comes with it. Our government presumes to embargo a whole country in what has traditionally been seen as an act of war, but it pretends that it is engaged in “diplomacy” with the government that it seeks to strangle. It is no wonder that the Iranian government has no interest in talking to Trump.

In addition to impoverishing the population and grinding them down in deepening misery, the administration’s sanctions are strengthening the regime and its elite forces. Based on her research into studying the IRGC, Narges Bajoghli comments on why the administration’s Iran policy is doomed to fail:

Things look different inside Iran. Having conducted ethnographic research among the Revolutionary Guards over a span of 10 years, including multiple years doing fieldwork with its media producers, I have watched it try to rebrand itself as the defender of a new, nationalist narrative about Iran as the regime enters its fifth decade.

Understanding this shift is key to making sense of the current international tensions and how they are interpreted in Iran. The Trump administration’s dual goals of its “maximum pressure” strategy — using sanctions to bring Iran to the table and to foment dissent in the pursuit of regime change — are in fundamental tension. Pressure from abroad makes it easier for the regime to build domestic solidarity at home. The Revolutionary Guards understands this, and thanks to its rebranding, is perfectly positioned to exploit it.

“Maximum pressure” is not a threat to the regime. It is a boon to the regime and its hard-liners. It is a curse upon the civilian population. This has always been very clear and critics of administration policy have been warning about this from the start. Iran hawks are famously bad at understanding which policies will weaken the regime and decrease its influence, and this has been no exception. Hawks in the U.S. don’t particularly want hard-liners in Iran to become less powerful, because the stronger that the latter are the easier it is for the former to push their confrontational policies. Hard-liners in both countries feed off of each other. The worse that the pressure campaign gets, the better things are politically at home for the IRGC. This is hardly surprising. Whenever any country comes under external threat, the institutions and forces responsible for security tend to gain the upper hand in domestic debates, and that is even more likely in an authoritarian political system. Trump has given the hard-liners the external threat they needed:

While the Revolutionary Guards remains a repressive organization, intolerant of dissent, for the moment it has managed to shift public opinion in its favor. The regime has long smeared its domestic critics as tools of Western imperialism, but the generations born after the revolution were skeptical of that message. In large numbers, young people kept voting for leaders who called for domestic reform, and promised dialogue with the West.

The Trump administration’s aggression has changed that. Hard-line factions in the guards and the political establishment have claimed for years that the United States cannot be trusted, despite calls by moderates and reformers for Tehran to take conciliatory measures toward the United States. With Mr. Trump unilaterally pulling out of the international nuclear accord, despite Iran’s compliance, conservatives in the Islamic Republic feel vindicated in their distrust of the United States.

“Maximum pressure” strengthens repression and destroys ordinary Iranians’ hopes. It is a profoundly stupid and harmful policy that fuels anti-American sentiment and undermines political reform inside Iran, and the sooner that it is ended the better things will be for the U.S. and the Iranian people.

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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