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The Suffocating Oppression of Sanctions

Leila Alikarami has done an exemplary job reporting on how U.S. sanctions are affecting ordinary Iranians, especially Iranian women:

Yet so far women, children and ordinary Iranians who were not part of the Islamic Republic’s decisions seem to be those most directly suffering as the country’s economic decline is having broad social and public health impacts.

“There is no doubt that women, like the rest of society, have suffered greatly from the sanctions,” said Nazanin, a female lawyer from Shiraz who asked that her last name not be used.

Discussions of sanctions in U.S. foreign policy debates are often focused on whether they will “work” in forcing the targeted regime to change certain policies. We very often ignore the far more important question of how this coercive policy of collective punishment damages the lives of ordinary people in the affected country. Even when we acknowledge that sanctions hurt the civilian population, we don’t delve into what that means in practice. Sanctions mean taking medicine out of the hands of sick people, or forcing them to pay exorbitant prices for less and less of it. Sanctions mean cutting off medical treatment for lack of proper medicine. Sanctions mean deteriorating health and in some cases preventable death. Sanctions mean a skyrocketing cost of living, the plummeting of wages, and the annihilation of savings. Sanctions mean ruined businesses, massive layoffs, and dashed hopes. Sanctions mean the theft of opportunity and an increasing pressure to leave home to find work overseas. Sanctions mean suffocating oppression imposed on the people by outside forces beyond their control.

The people that have the least suffer the most, and those without influence and connections experience the full brunt of the sanctions. The entire civilian population suffers needlessly, but the sick, the poor, the elderly, and the young endure the heaviest blows. Iranian women are struggling with rising costs and diminishing resources to pay them:

Indeed, Iranian women complain about the spiraling prices of imported contact lenses, cancer and diabetes drugs and even sanitary pads and tampons. They have had to resort to food rationing and substitution strategies to stretch a weak rial and feed their families as the reimposition of US extraterritorial sanctions batters the Iranian economy.

Sanctions mean forcing mothers to resort to wartime measures to find enough food for their children. Sanctions mean deprivation and destitution. That is what our government is doing to a country of more than eighty million people ostensibly because of policies that they don’t control. I say ostensibly because I often get the impression that many advocates for sanctioning Iran would insist on sanctioning them no matter what the government did or didn’t do. The real point of these sanctions may not be to bring about policy change, but simply to inflict as much pain as possible on a country that sanctions advocates happen to dislike for some reason.

The Trump administration pretends that its sanctions allow exemptions for humanitarian goods, but in practice this is not true because of the sanctions that affect financial institutions:

Washington maintains that sanctions do not apply to medicines and food. While technically true, in reality ordinary Iranians are seeing shortages of drugs, medical supplies and other essential goods as banking channels have been shut down and Iran faces limited access to foreign currency.

It does ordinary Iranians no good to know that technically their medicine and other essential goods aren’t the things blocked by sanctions when it is impossible to arrange payment for the goods because most foreign businesses don’t want to engage in transactions that involve Iranian banks. The meaningless exemptions don’t eliminate the shortages or reduce the prices that the people have to pay. The administration cites these exemptions as proof that they aren’t opposed to the people, but then they do everything they can to discourage anyone from doing any business in Iran. The people on the receiving end of these sanctions can see through the feigned concern, and they know who is to blame for impoverishing them and making their lives harder.

Alikarami also explains how sanctions are harming social and political reform activism by forcing activists to be preoccupied with simply surviving and getting by:

As the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran unravels the day-to-day stability of the lives of Iranian women, it also is undermining the very movements that fight for women’s rights. Indeed, dozens of Iranian human rights defenders conveyed to Al-Monitor that they simply no longer have the time or means to dedicate themselves to voluntary activism. As a recently expatriated Iranian Kurdish human rights lawyer explained, “When you have the members of the middle classes unable to meet their basic needs, the civil society organizations promoting human rights, including women’s and children’s rights and the environment, usually lose their edge because their members become more concerned about making ends meet.”

As we have seen from recent reporting about the IRGC, sanctions are actually a boon for regime insiders and hard-liners. They stand to make a killing, so to speak, while the rest of the population endures deepening misery. If you wanted to design a policy to strengthen the regime at the expense of its domestic critics, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a better one than the Trump administration’s destructive Iran policy. Alikarami concludes her report with this sobering assessment:

But as the lives of ordinary Iranians become more difficult and just about every bit of time and energy is spent on making ends meet, the space for activism shrinks and participation in political life becomes more and more of a luxury that few can afford. As such, all signs point to increased repression and lesser civil society activism as the shadows from the US sanctions grow longer.

Sanctions hurt the civilian population twice over. First, they wreck the economy, destroy jobs, and make savings worthless, and then by forcing political activists to spend all their time and energy on staying above water the sanctions effectively tighten the regime’s grip on power so that there is even less chance of political change from within.

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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