Sanctions are Counterproductive, Hurt Ordinary Iranians

At the Middle Eastern affairs journal Muftah, Hani Mansourian takes a well warranted critical look into the human cost of sanctions against Iran.

With Iran seemingly recalcitrant on its nuclear program and the United States unwilling to put up “robust economic, political and strategic incentives that will give Iran’s leaders reason to cooperate,” many proponents of escalating measure hold out hope that the people of Iran to rise up and oust their regime due to ever tightening sanctions and perhaps even an eventual military attack.

While a regime change as a result of military attack is regularly dismissed by people in the know — just ask top Iranian activists what they think — far less attention is given to the viability of tough sanctions leading to a mass uprising.

Remember that the U.S. State Department has admitted its sanctions have expanded to pressuring ordinary Iranians — Jamshid Average, if you will — thus conflating the people with the government of Iran.

Mansourian examines precedents — focusing on the failures of broad-based sanctions against Iraq and targeted ones against Zimbabwe — and contrasts these with the situation in Iran. He shows that even the targeted sanctions will prove counterproductive, because they are crushing Iran’s fragile economy and thereby destroying the middle class that drives the Iranian opposition.

Mansourian writes:

Many years of sanctions coupled with sub-optimal economic policies in Iran has resulted in a weak economy and a fragile middle-class. The latest round of UN, U.S., and EU sanctions on Iran is likely to drive millions into poverty and destitution. As economic opportunities for the growth of a solid middle-class disappear, the young Iranians that have historically been the agents of change in the country will lose their social base.  Ironically, then, sanctions may do more to increase the power of the Iranian government and to weaken the domestic opposition movement, to the ostensible detriment of U.S. interests

The Iraq example is especially compelling. In the 1996, Secretary of State Madeline Albright notoriously told a CBS reporter that sanctions were “worth it,” even though a half a million dead Iraqi children had died. Iraq’s infant mortality rose from one in 30 in 1990 to 1 in 8 in 1997. “Worth what?” one might ask, considering that as far as the hawks were concerned Iraq still needed to be invaded.

Note that Mansouraian’s analysis takes for granted the questionable notion, put forward by sanctions-hawks that the Green Movement is anywhere united behind regime change rather than incremental reform.

But sanctions as a means to regime change isn’t the only goal based on questionable premises. Even the notion of sanctions as a means to change Iranian behavior on the nuclear program is unlikely to succeed.

At a conference called “War With Iran?” last month at Columbia University, Prof. Richard Bulliet expressed fear that the U.S. Iran policy may be heading down the same path as Iraq policy — implementing a sanctions regime that can never work, followed by a military attack (video):

After 1991, the U.S. put sanctions on Iraq that could not possibly be satisfied. Iraq could say, ‘Okay, we have completely given up WMD.’ And we would say, ‘We don’t believe you. And the only way we can be sure is to get rid of your regime’ … My worry is that we’re moving a little bit in this direction with Iran, that we are creating a focus on a sanctions regime that it may not be possible for Iran to satisfy the fears of the people who are putting on the sanctions.

Give a read to Andrew Cockburn’s essay on the impact of sanctions on Iraq in July’s London Review of Books. The developments with regards to Iran may well seem eerily similar.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.


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