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The Ghoulish Opposition to Sanctions Relief for Iran

Given their evident delight in starving Iran of resources while it struggles against the pandemic, Iran hawks might be more appropriately called Iran ghouls.
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The Wall Street Journal predictably rejects sanctions relief for Iran, but it is worth noting that they have to tell a lot of lies to make their argument:

Easing sanctions would shore up the regime’s shaky position without providing relief to the Iranian people. Tehran has money for medicine if it cuts spending on missiles, nuclear-weapons development and military adventurism. Diverting billions from the mullahs’ violent imperial project is the best way to relieve suffering in Iran and the broader Middle East.

Iran is not engaged in “nuclear-weapons development” and hasn’t been for more than a decade and a half, so we can dismiss that as the utter nonsense that it is. The rest of the editorial is just as divorced from reality. The one thing that the editorial gets right is when it says that the “sanctions campaign has starved the government of hundreds of billions of dollars.” Starving the government of all that revenue means that it has fewer resources to combat the current outbreak. Unlike non-sanctioned governments, Iran’s government cannot afford to undertake the costly measures needed to safeguard public health. Mahsa Rouhi and Narges Bajoghli explain this in their recent op-ed:

At the same time, the American sanctions and falling oil prices have severely weakened the Iranian economy. An impoverished Iran needs financial and medical resources — from food and medicine to cash transfers — to carry out an effective nationwide quarantine and other measures to curb the outbreak.

Iran can’t afford to halt its economy and enforce a complete lockdown. Tehran has sought to shore up the financial security of its poorest families through cash transfers over the past week but faces a huge budget deficit. Pirouz Hanachi, the mayor of Tehran, explained that a quarantine was nearly impossible to enforce because the government would be unable to financially support people unable to work.

Hard-liners in the U.S. take great pleasure in the economic damage and dislocation that their sanctions have caused, but as soon as someone tries to hold them accountable for inflicting misery and death on Iranians they suddenly start pretending that sanctions are harmless and irrelevant to conditions inside Iran. They are quick to declare that “maximum pressure” is “working” because of the havoc that sanctions wreak on Iran’s finances, but they don’t want to be held responsible when that havoc results in the preventable deaths of innocents. It is indisputable that U.S. sanctions block Iranians from making transactions with the rest of the world because financial institutions refuse to do business with them, and that prevents them from being able to obtain vital medicine and medical equipment. Sanctions are collective punishment that hurt the weakest and most vulnerable people in Iran, but sanctions advocates don’t want to own the consequences of the economic war that they fanatically defend.

The WSJ editors refer to $16 billion that Iran has spent since 2012 on its support for armed groups and proxies around the region. That leaves a much larger sum from earlier sanctions relief that Iran used for other purposes. According to the testimony of our own officials, Iran used most of the so-called “windfall” from post-JCPOA sanctions relief on domestic social spending:

“Now as part of the deal, Iran is bringing back some of that money. But the overwhelming majority of that money is going into their economy which is in dire straits. It’s not going to the military,” Blinken said.

Even under the reimposed sanctions, Iran increased domestic subsidies according to none other than The Wall Street Journal. It is important to get the history on this right because it directly bears on how the Iranian government is likely to use money gained from sanctions relief now. The Iranian government is always going to spend a certain amount of its budget on its military defenses and support for proxies, but it is a serious mistake to assume that most or all sanctions relief has been or will be used this way. It suits the simplistic, ideological caricature of Iran that hard-liners have to claim that all sanctions relief goes only toward “malign activities,” but that is not how Iran has used sanctions relief in the past and it is not how they are likely to use it in the future.

The WSJ editors also disingenuously claim that humanitarian goods are exempted, but we know that isn’t true in practice. Rouhi and Bajoghli continue:

The Trump administration claims that its sanctions do not hinder medicine and humanitarian trade. But since the sanctions prevent international financial transactions and shipping, any trade, including that of medicines and medical equipment, is almost impossible. Several companies that supply the medical equipment required to fight coronavirus have stopped shipping to Iran because their banks refuse to handle the transactions.

The sanctions harm the entire population, and they are designed to do just that. It is pure sophistry to claim that sanctions relief wouldn’t help the Iranian people when the people have so clearly suffered because of them.

The Trump administration has gone out of its way for years to make humanitarian channels as difficult to use as possible, and even now the limited Swiss channel is inadequate for Iran’s needs in the middle of the pandemic. Iran hawks know all of this, and in their more unguarded moments they exult in the horrors they have unleashed on the Iranian people, so no one should take their protestations seriously when they argue for keeping murderous sanctions in place. Given their evident delight in starving Iran of resources while it struggles against the pandemic, Iran hawks might be more appropriately called Iran ghouls.