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The Cruelty and Stupidity of Iran Sanctions

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj warns that stricter U.S. sanctions will be a boon for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) while the rest of the population suffers:

Importantly, the evidence that sanctions line the pockets of the IRGC is stronger than the evidence that sanctions relief benefits Iran’s proxies. In his May 2017 testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Lt. Gen. Vince Stewart, then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, gave his assessment of Iran’s use of its proceeds from sanctions relief, telling the committee that “the preponderance of the money [has] gone to economic development and infrastructure.”

To this end, the Trump administration’s characterization of its sanctions policy is dishonest, at least in its presentation of the intended and unintended consequences of the policy. If limiting the financial means of the IRGC and its proxies were the intended consequence of the sanctions policy, the current strategy would be falling short while very demonstrably having the unintended consequence of unduly harming the Iranian people through economic hardship.

In this formulation, the administration is failing to achieve its stated goals despite the ample evidence that its chosen strategy will not work. But if you flip the intended and unintended consequences, a more likely explanation becomes clear. The boon for the IRGC is the unintended consequence of a strategy that is designed foremost to put pressure on the Iranian economy at large [bold mine-DL].

It should come as no surprise that reimposed sanctions will work to the IRGC’s benefit, because this is just what happened before the nuclear deal. Regime insiders are able to take advantage of the difficulties created by sanctions and use their connections to enrich themselves while the rest of the country is impoverished. When legal trade is restricted or cut off, those that profit from illicit trade are in a position to gain the most. As Batmanghelidj says:

The IRGC and its proxies are enriched by smuggling and enabled by sanctions. The Trump administration seems all too eager to feed this seven-headed dragon.

Iran hawks have wrongly portrayed sanctions relief under the nuclear deal as a boost for the IRGC when the exact opposite is the case. Punitive sanctions help Iran’s hard-liners, and it is the civilian population that endures the collective punishment that the U.S. is meting out. Strengthening Iran’s hard-liners at the expense of the population is a cruel and stupid policy, but it is consistent with an administration that seeks confrontation with the regime and has nothing but contempt for the people. It is fitting that the same people that denounce the JCPOA for the supposed “windfall” it provided to the Iranian government are pursuing a policy that will add to the fortunes of the IRGC. At the same time that the administration makes unrealistic demands that Iran should cease all of its “malign activities” and claims to stand with the people, it is strangling ordinary Iranians while it makes Iran’s hard-liners rich.

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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