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The Immorality of Sanctions

Afua Hirsch makes a compelling case that the Trump administration’s Iran sanctions are unwarranted and immoral:

Causing destitution rarely makes the world a better place. Sanctions are a form of violence, which means that, as with other uses of force on the world stage, there should be a high bar to justify their imposition. Before dialling that emergency number, states wishing to impose them should be certain of their practical efficacy, and confident that the civilian price that will be paid is morally justified. It’s hard to see how Trump’s Iran sanctions pass either test.

Sanctions are rarely effective in changing the targeted regime’s behavior, so when the U.S. imposes them on another country the real purpose is simply to inflict punishment. The problem with sanctioning to punish is twofold. The punishment does not change the regime’s behavior and so achieves nothing except to satisfy U.S. policymakers that they have “done something,” and the burden of the punishment falls most heavily on the population that isn’t responsible for the regime behavior that offends Washington. It is collective punishment of the innocent for the wrongdoing, real or imagined, of the regime over which the people have no real control. On top of all that, advocates of sanctioning to punish are often using regime behavior as an excuse to pursue their real goal of regime change, which is both illegitimate and even more dangerous for the civilian population.

Imposing sanctions is often presented as a “peaceful” alternative to even more coercive and aggressive measures, but sanctions are themselves coercive and aggressive attacks on the population of another country. Sanctions are often a prelude to increased tensions and conflict, and when applied against certain states they are the first step on a ladder of escalation that leads to support for toppling the government and then military intervention. Meanwhile, the people living in the country are being twice sanctioned–once by their repressive government, and then a second time by the U.S. Instead of throwing a lifeline to the people suffering from mismanagement and corruption, imposing sanctions is akin to throwing a drowning man an anchor and congratulating ourselves for our generosity.

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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