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Choking Iranians to Death with Sanctions

The Trump administration has been strangling the Iranian economy for the last two years with increasingly harsh sanctions, and now they are tightening their grip even further:

The Trump administration has decided to impose new sanctions on Iran’s financial sector in defiance of European allies who warned that the move could have devastating humanitarian consequences on a country reeling from the novel coronavirus and an ongoing currency crisis, three officials familiar with the decision said Wednesday.

The measures will target the few remaining banks not currently subject to secondary sanctions in a move European governments say is likely to diminish channels Iran uses to import humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine, officials said.

U.S. sanctions have already done tremendous harm in slowing and blocking the import of food and medicine into the country. The supposed humanitarian exemptions have never worked, and even the Swiss channel set up to facilitate humanitarian trade has processed just one transaction. The U.S. has made it as difficult as possible for anyone to do legitimate business with Iranians, and now they seek to make it all but impossible. The administration’s decision to impose sanctions on these remaining banks is an exceptionally cruel and destructive move that will punish only ordinary Iranians, and they will suffer greater hardships and shortages because of it. The U.S. has been waging a relentless economic war on the Iranian people, and this is the latest and most indefensible escalation of that war.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj analyzed the sanctions when they were proposed last month, and he warned that they would have a crippling effect on humanitarian trade with Iran:

The targeting of these banks would cripple Iran’s already degraded channels for the importation of humanitarian goods—including food and medicine—at a time when the country is battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

This new proposal, spearheaded by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, long-time opponents of the 2015 nuclear deal, would be the latest and most extreme in a series of sanctions moves intended to deliberately undermined long-standing protections for humanitarian trade. Proponents of the proposal believe that it will be “possible to mitigate the humanitarian costs, chiefly through so-called comfort letters from the Treasury Department.”

However, considering the precedent set by the Trump administration, there is no reason to believe that the humanitarian costs can be mitigated.

The practical effects of these sanctions will be to weaken Iran’s currency, cause more inflation, and further impoverish the population. It will cause more foreign businesses to cease operations in Iran for fear of U.S. penalties, and it will make it much more difficult for Iranian importers to make payments for those few transactions that might be permitted. The result is that Iranians will be poorer, and they will face an even harder struggle to obtain humanitarian goods. Sanctions have already caused great misery and caused many preventable deaths, and sanctioning these banks will make things even worse.

Golnar Motevalli reported last week on the reaction to the proposed sanctions in Iran:

Drug and medical supply companies in Iran are now weighing the possibility that the proposed new penalties would all but paralyze their work. That could leave companies increasingly dependent on a small network of informal money changers overseas who can execute financial transfers but who might also find themselves in Trump’s crosshairs under the new sanctions.

“So they want to completely suffocate us. Iran will be completely crushed and many people will suffer,” said Sara, a 33-year-old employee at a pharmaceutical company based in Tehran who didn’t want to be identified because of the sensitivity of speaking with foreign media.

The Trump administration’s Iran policy is an outrageous abuse of U.S. power. Supporters of this policy seem to delight in the widespread misery and deprivation they are creating, and they tout the economic damage as proof that the policy is “working.” As I have said before, destruction is the real goal of the policy. Iran hawks set out to choke Iranians to death, and that is what they have been doing for the last two years.

Batmanghelidj points out that there is no legitimate reason for sanctioning these banks:

What is striking about the proposed sanctions is the lack of any clear policy rationale for their imposition. The targeting of these banks in no way advances the Trump administration’s stated aims to curtail Iran’s “malign behaviors.” These banks are not significant vectors for money laundering and terrorist financing nor are they substantively linked to the Iranian government nor entities such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These banks have not been designated so far under the proposed authorities precisely because they are unlike most other Iranian banks. It is these distinct governance and operational characteristics that have enabled several of these banks to play a crucial role in humanitarian trade [bold mine-DL]. As such, there is no national security justification for the designations—the only clear impact will be the further immiseration of ordinary Iranians as the supply of food and medicine becomes increasingly erratic.

The only other apparent reason for the latest sanctions is to make it harder for a Biden administration to reenter the JCPOA:

The measures would have two objectives, according to people familiar with the plans, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations: close one of the few remaining financial loopholes allowing Iran’s government to earn revenue, and stymie Democrat Joe Biden’s promise to re-enter a 2015 nuclear deal if he wins the presidency in November.

The message that the administration is sending is quite clear: they will keep piling on sanctions no matter what Iran and Iranian banks do. It makes no difference to them if Iran complies with the JCPOA or if it reduces compliance. The U.S. will strangle them with sanctions either way. It makes no difference whether Iranian banks run a clean operation or not, because they will all be sanctioned regardless of what they do. This is a policy driven by ideology and unremitting hostility for the entire country, and it is no surprise that the main drivers of this policy have been the Israeli government and the ghouls at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:

Our government’s Iran policy has been in the hands of fanatics and ideologues, and that has to change. We need an Iran policy that actually puts the interests of the U.S. first, and we need one that rejects the unjust and monstrous collective punishment of 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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