Sanctions Devastate the People, But They Strengthen the Regime
Yesterday the head of the Trump administration’s Iran Action Group, Brian Hook, gave a celebratory press briefing in which he boasted about the “success” that the U.S. has had in wrecking Iran’s economy:
— Cindy Saine (@cindysaine) April 2, 2019
Administration officials like to cite the economic damage that sanctions have caused, but at the same time they don’t want to accept responsibility for the adverse effects this has on the civilian population. They want to emphasize the impact that U.S. policy is having, but they don’t want the blame that inevitably goes with it. The administration seems to think that listing the number of sanctions and the companies that have been driven out of the Iranian market proves that their policy is “working,” but according to their own standards the policy hasn’t achieved any discernible changes in the regime or its behavior. Administration officials are quick to fault the government for all of the harm that befalls the Iranian people, but their pride in causing Iranians greater economic hardship is impossible to miss. As many observers have mentioned, listing economic damage from sanctions is just as meaningless as announcing body counts or the number of bombs dropped on the enemy in a war. Sanctions can be devastating, but it doesn’t prove that they are having the desired effect. The administration’s policy is a failure on its own terms and causes greater misery for tens of millions of people, but they think that if they just rattle off numbers of sanctioned entities they can declare victory.
Nicholas Miller summed up Hook’s performance:
All in all, Hook is exaggerating the success and popularity of US policy, inflating the threat posed by Iran, and refusing to take responsibility for the sanctions' humanitarian impact. In other words: a perfect microcosm of the administration’s Iran policy. 12/12
— Nicholas Miller (@Nick_L_Miller) April 3, 2019
The timing of Hook’s briefing was in particularly poor taste. Iranians are coping with massive floods, U.S. sanctions are hurting relief efforts for those floods, and Trump’s State Department thought this would be a good time to tout the wonders of sanctions on Iran. Some Iran experts and journalists remarked on this yesterday:
Regardless of what you think of the maximum pressure campaign on #Iran and where you stand on the impact of US sanctions on Iran's flood relief efforts, the admin's decision to do a lengthy briefing celebrating what it describes as successful pressure campaign today is a mistake.
— Ariane Tabatabai (@ArianeTabatabai) April 2, 2019
this is so over the top and the reason for its timing now seems… inexplicable
— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) April 2, 2019
The administration’s desire to have things both ways is not lost on the people suffering from the effects of sanctions. As Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar said in an op-ed today:
The statements of American officials that they target the Iranian regime and not the people are a bad joke. To ordinary Iranians, they are targeting the people.
Of course, there is no way to wage an economic war on an entire country without targeting the people living in it, and so there is no excuse for a policy that is inevitably inflicting collective punishment on the whole nation. Sanctions advocates know this, but support imposing sanctions anyway because they put their political and policy goals far ahead of the welfare of the civilian population that is being made to suffer. They can rationalize this however they like, but the reality is that they deliberately inflict pain and deprivation on millions of people in a bid to dictate terms to their government or to topple the government. The harm done to the civilian population by the “maximum pressure” campaign isn’t unexpected or unintentional. Hurting the civilian population is essential to the administration’s policy, because they hope that if they make conditions terrible enough that it will cause an insurrection that brings down the government. That makes the policy of harming ordinary Iranians even more obnoxious, because it can’t achieve its goal. The people aren’t going to oblige the Trump administration by giving them the regime change they want. On the contrary, the pressure campaign is driving the people and the regime closer together in common cause against the U.S. Tabaar writes:
And Iran’s leaders have found that President Trump’s hostility toward Iran is helping to rally otherwise resentful citizens behind the regime and create a new cohesive Islamist-nationalist ideology.
When a country comes under attack from outside, it is normal for the people to rally to their political leaders. Many Americans apparently don’t think of the sanctions that our government imposes as an attack on another country, but that is exactly what they are and there is nothing else they could be. The more pressure that the U.S. exerts on another country from the outside, the less political pressure the regime is under from within. Perversely, the most rabid advocates of using sanctions to force regime change are the guarantors of regime survival.