by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
“The Iranians have to suffer.” This is the message U.S. officials have relayed to their European counterparts as negotiations stall over Iran sanctions. Despite all the assurances that U.S. sanctions do not target the Iranian people, despite the promises that humanitarian trade would be protected, this message reveals the underlying truth.
In a briefing last week, journalists pressured Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook on the lack of “safe channels” for humanitarian trade and the pervading fear that even if companies sell food and medicine in Iran, “they will be targeted by US sanctions.” Hook’s response was as perfunctory as it was telling: “The burden is not on the United States to identify the safe channels.” He claimed that the “burden is on the Iranian regime” to ensure that its financial system “complies with international banking standards” and is thus able to facilitate humanitarian trade.
Hook’s claim is ludicrous. The reluctance of many banks to trade with Iran stems entirely from the fear of U.S. regulators—even when conducting transactions that are in principle exempt from sanctions—and not risks endemic to the Iranian financial system, which are commensurate with those in many developing markets worldwide.
Iran is currently experiencing the reemergence of shortages in medicine and the rising cost of basic foods exacerbated by the forthcoming U.S. sanctions. It is increasingly clear that the suffering of ordinary Iranians is an intended effect of the Trump administration’s policy. This is no surprise. As journalist Barbara Slavin has smartly observed, why would Trump care about Iranians when he disdains so many of his fellow Americans?
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and to reimpose sanctions on Iran, despite Iran’s continued compliance with the agreement, reflects the same policy approach as the administration’s undermining of the Paris Agreement on climate change, NATO, several multilateral trade deals, the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty, and various other multilateral agreements. In a recent opinion piece in the Financial Times, Hassan Rouhani declared that “US foreign policy has posed new challenges to the global order.” In this context, the withdrawal from the JCPOA was an expression of a unilateralist foreign policy.
But unlike other instances in which Trump has cast aside the mantle of global leadership, the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA amounts to more than a refusal to take action in concert with allies and partners. Leaving the JCPOA is about insisting on aggressive actions, primarily through the reimposition of sanctions on Iran and on countries that wish to maintain economic ties with Iran.
Thus, the Trump administration’s Iran policy must be evaluated differently from the rest of his foreign policy. On few other issues has the Trump administration mobilized so many government agencies, so many officials, and so many communications tools to enact policy. On this basis, any moral failing that arises from the Trump administration’s policy is not one of omission. The moral harms arise from action.
Hook’s insistence that the United States has no burden to identify channels for humanitarian trade is meaningless given that the United States is actively destroying existing channels for humanitarian trade. For example, the administration is sanctioning one of the banks at the heart of Iran’s purchase of food and medicine.
In previous administrations, the moral shortcomings of American policy on Iran could be explained within an overarching strategic logic. The Obama administration’s sanctions on Iran were also harmful to ordinary Iranians, precipitating similar shortages in medicine and food. But these earlier sanctions were pursued in concert with the international community and were strengthened progressively in response to perceived Iranian intransigence on the issue of the country’s nuclear program. These were reasonable and reasoned policies.
The Trump administration has stated that its “ultimate goal” is to get Iran to “behave as a normal country.” Amazingly, not a single one of the 12 demands issued by Pompeo to Iran pertain to the Iranian government’s treatment of its own people, which should be the primary measure by which we judge the “normalcy” of countries. Iran could certainly make improvements in the protection of economic and political rights as part of internal reform—especially as external sanctions infringe on these rights.
Perhaps the goal for Iran and the international community, in seeking to resist American sanctions, is to ensure that the Iranian people can continue to “lead normal lives.” Prioritizing “normal lives” links the maintenance of trade and investment with Iran to the economic security of individuals and families. But more importantly, it reflects the idea that the foremost responsibility of the Iranian government is to its own people and to protecting their rights in accordance with widely accepted norms.
What is so vexing about Trump’s sanctions, particularly for the Iranian public, is that the government of the Islamic Republic did not violate the nuclear deal. Although Secretary of State Pompeo points to Iran’s “malign behaviors,” there is no proportionality evident in the decision to pursue a “maximum pressure” policy and to cripple the Iranian economy.
Today, ordinary Iranians are struggling to answer the question of why sanctions are being re-imposed and why they must suffer. This gives rise to a new fear that their suffering is unconditional and permanent, unrelated to their actions as citizens (who voted for Hassan Rouhani) or their government (which achieved the nuclear deal) or the international community (which vowed to stand up to the United States).
The inevitability of this suffering, and its quotidian dimension, is what makes the U.S. financial war so pernicious. Life in Iran could be normal. There are no bombs falling on Tehran as they did in the Iran-Iraq war. But life remains difficult. As described by an Iranian mother unable to purchase red meat and fresh fruit for her two children, “We are being tortured, little by little, day by day.”