Not more than a week after the Iranian rial went from a fall to a nosedive and blame for the suffering of Iranians was subscribed to the U.S.-led sanctions, U.S. and European hawks are both taking steps to ratchet up the pressure and acknowledging that, in fact, inflicting such suffering on ordinary Iranians is exactly what we need to be doing.
Take the example of The Telegraph’s chief foreign policy correspondent, Colin Freeman, who, honestly enough, admits that the ‘entire point’ of the U.S.-led sanctions is to cause the kind of pain and suffering for ordinary Iranians that a UN Report to the General Assembly lamented just last week. Instead of criticizing this aim of the sanctions, however, Freeman asks whether ‘hitting’ ordinary Iranians “may be the West’s only chance” at stopping a nuclear-armed Iran.
Ignoring the fact that Freeman’s prescription, honest as it is, misses the mark widely on Iran, signaling a critical gap in the West’s conception of Iran and its opposition movements, his proposal also flies in the face of several important principles of international law (the most obvious being that targeting civilians in order to extract political concessions from a regime is the very working definition of ‘terrorism’ — at least, when we use it against our opponents).
But Freeman is hardly alone in his position. This morning, the Chicago Tribune called for a total trade embargo with Iran, urging efforts in the U.S. Congress and the European Union in that direction be ‘hurried’ along. Such a total embargo would effectively make it impossible for Iranian banks to engage in any import- or export-related transactions. This does, at the least, take the veil away from pretensions to the ‘targeted’ sanctions regime the Obama State Department promised and which has been its calling-card ever since.
For, as even the Chicago Tribune admits, Iranians face ruinous economic conditions – a currency in nosedive, skyrocketing inflation and unemployment, and difficulty in getting basic food staples to market. But, as the Tribune prescribed, ‘the economic pain needs to get worse. Much worse.’
Thus, the vice in which Iranians find themselves today, thanks to U.S-led sanctions, would be dramatically tightened and the life circumstances for ordinary Iranians would diminish considerably from the low-point of last week. That, at least, is the goal of the sanctions regime in the Tribune’s mind. And certainly, it reflects deep-rooted sentiments, some of which were detailed prior to the imposition of the oil-based sanctions (think U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman’s remark that hurting ordinary Iranians ‘is exactly what we need to be doing’), informing the Obama administration and U.S. Congress’s policy choices vis-à-vis Iran.
Once again, serious questions abound on whether such an embargo would be legal under international law (regardless of their negative impact on Iranian civilians), in the absence of Security Council authorization (which is not forthcoming).
In addition, from the standpoint of U.S. planners, pragmatic questions arise on whether the best move for the U.S. and Europe to make on an Iranian population which is mostly young and cosmopolitan is to alienate them forever by squeezing out all their life opportunities.
But critically, the central question should be why the U.S., not a decade removed from lifting a sanctions regime that had been described by respected UN diplomats as ‘genocidal’, should seek a return to that same kind of blanket sanctions regime, snuffing out life without the drama of war.
This callousness should be expected, however. If, as I have argued and has been confirmed by such sentiments as those detailed above, the whole intent of the sanctions is to cause as much suffering for ordinary Iranians as possible in order to force the Iranian regime to make a rational choice between the continuation of its nuclear enrichment program or the stability of its regime (a false choice, at least to me), then we should expect that detailed reports of Iran’s hyperinflation, its ever-growing unemployment rates, the skyrocketing prices of food and basic goods, etc., should confirm to U.S. and European planners that their sanctions regime is working and should be increased ever more in order to realize their policy goals. That is, rather than seeing the hurt endured by Iranian civilians as a bad thing, U.S. and European planners view it quite the opposite: as a sign that things are moving in the right direction.
Our job should be not only to reject the premises on which these policy choices are built (i.e., the idea that Iranians will turn against the regime should conditions turn bad as a result of U.S.-led sanctions), but also point out how, at the most fundamental level, the U.S.-led sanctions disturb our notions of what constitutes rule of law, of what constitutes violence, and of what role the U.S. has in increasing the suffering of ordinary people the world over.
Others have said this long before me, but unless we make the effort to turn back the sanctions regime, they will continue on their inexorable path to causing untold levels of pain for Iranian civilians. No one else ‘can call us to account’: the drive for a fundamental change in U.S. policy towards Iran (and others) must start and end here.