Trump’s Sanctions Will Hurt the Wrong People in Iran

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by Jamal Abdi and Sina Toossi

In August 2013, a group of 466 Iranian dissidents, including dozens of political prisoners, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama chastising him for his Iran policy. The unprecedented sanctions Obama had mustered against Iran, they argued, were not only debilitating the Iranian economy but suffocating Iranian civil society and prospects for peaceful democratic change within the country.

“The Iranian people see themselves as victims to tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments,” the letter proclaimed. “[They] have reached the conclusion that the sanctioning countries don’t care about their human rights and, to compel the Islamic Republic to accept their demands, they target the Iranian people.”

This week, Donald Trump reinstated the first set of those sanctions, which were removed as part of the July 2015 nuclear accord. According to the Congressional Research Service, these sanctions were the “most sweeping sanctions on Iran of virtually any country in the world,” cutting Iran out of most international trade and banking, and slashing its oil exports—the lifeblood of the Iranian economy.

The Obama sanctions plunged the Iranian economy into recession and doubled the rate of Iranian families in poverty. In January 2013, the Guardian wrote that “hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by … sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs.”

The human costs of the sanctions were not only overlooked by many in Washington, but outright defended in some quarters. Congressman Brad Sherman declared at the time: “Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

Trump may have a similar mindset in re-imposing the sanctions, despite complete Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal that triggered their removal. Despite his expressed desire for talks with Iran, the rhetoric and actions coming from the president and his administration do not reflect an endgame focused on diplomatic compromise.

Rather, they betray an objective to weaken and destabilize Iran. To this end, Trump has embraced the aggressively anti-Iran positions of Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati leaders, who for years have pushed U.S. presidents to bomb Iran. For them, a failed state in Iran is a sufficient objective.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been marked by all-out economic warfare, including a stated aim of forcing Iran out of the oil market. Trump and his hawkish officials National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also actively tried to sow the flames of unrest in Iran. At a time when economic hardship and political grievances have brought thousands of Iranians to the streets, Pompeo and Bolton have flattered fringe and extremist Iranian opposition groups. According to U.S. officials speaking with Reuters, the Trump administration has “launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran.” The administration has also reportedly teamed up with Israel to form a “joint working group” focused on “internal efforts to encourage protests within Iran.”

The reality is that Trump’s pressure campaign weakens those within Iran who seek more conciliatory foreign relations and a more open political and social domestic landscape. It also empowers Tehran’s most reactionary forces.

The repressive powers in the Islamic Republic are far more threatened by Iran’s integration into the global economy than by a tit-for-tat dispute with the United States. They worry that the lifting of sanctions will undermine the monopolies established by the well connected few who are aligned with the Revolutionary Guards and other government entities. Indeed, after the nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader issued edicts against a broader opening to the United States and hardliners repeatedly warned of “foreign infiltration” in order to obstruct President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West.

The real threats to repressive rule in Iran are a growing middle class, an organized civil society movement, and leaders who have the political capital to push for change against entrenched elements in the system. These trends make a democratic Iran inevitable. But outsiders, often led by the United States, have taken actions to arrest these developments. They have propped up Iran’s repressive rulers with threats of war and invasion, and bailed them out by slapping sanctions and travel bans to isolate Iranians and keep them weak.

Trump’s punishing use of sanctions will wither away Iranian civil society by impoverishing Iran’s middle class. The sanctions will serve to increase control of the Iranian economy by unaccountable and repressive forces. If U.S. policymakers wish to increase room for political dissent and civil society in Iran, they should remove obstacles to improving the standard of living and wellbeing of the Iranian people. Surrounded by advisors who have for years argued for orchestrating a civil war in Iran, Donald Trump unfortunately appears headed in a perilous direction.

Jamal Abdi is president of the National Iranian American Council. Sina Toossi is a research associate at the National Iranian American Council.

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  1. The Ayatollah sanctions on the Iranian people is far worse than any other sanctions.

    The Ayatollahs seems to get a lot of support from anti-US and anti-Trump people. That is just not right.

    Most people do not like Trump, but don’t support this horrid regime just because Trump does not like the Ayatollahs.

    The people of Iran are protesting against the terrible economic management and for the first time the merchants are blaming the Ayatollahs. They are not blaming the US. They do not want the regime to waste the oil income on external proxy campaigns in Syria and Yemen.

    You will find many people make very rude comments against me here. I apologize for this. I have my own view and I write extensively at my own Blog Iran News Blog. I put Iran first. I look at the ancient Iranian culture for inspiration. To me the Avesta, Astrology and ancient archaeology of Iran inspire me. Many Iranians are inspired by Persepolis, and other heritage sites. We must preserve our heritage. We pray to Ahuramazda.

  2. Ali as bad as the mullahs are they have actually done more to preserve Iranian heritage than your US and Israeli friends have. Not to mention the geriatric Shahis who scarcely mentioned how Israelis tried to steal Persian artifacts in Chicago. You can protest against the economy but if you do it while the CIA is spending millions on destabilizing Iran you are hurting Iranians. The same goes if you support these sanctions. Fact.

    The MEK, CIA, and Mossad don’t care about Persopolis. People don’t let them fool you.

  3. Thank you Jamal Abdi for the piece! I agree with you and it’s the third law of physics which states, for every action in nature there’s an equal and opposite reaction! The US sanctions have proven to be wrong by making the regime in Iran stronger and more bold for about 4 decades! The wishful rational on the part of the US has been if the people in Iran suffer enough because of the sanctions then they will replace their own government with one more friendly toward the west and the Zionist state! How’s that working for the west? This is not only a NO cost strategy for the US for changing the regime in Iran it is also a gain for the politicians at the same time! Unfortunately it isn’t recognized in the US that as the people’s position is weakened by the severe sanctions the position of the government becomes stronger. This is exactly what is being experienced in Iran today and of course observed externally. Bottom line, a weak Iran is a desirable outcome for the US for protecting the Zionist state and a few dumb Arab states who are purchasing arms and making contributions to the US campaigns directly or indirectly through the MIC!

    @ Ali Mostofi, we’re not making any rude comment(s) toward you and/or your comments. In fact we are being very nice to you and we are saying those things because we believe that you do NOT understand the position of people in Iran! You may have good intentions and trying to help the average peole on streets but by being obsessed against the Mullahs the reaction is just in the opposite direction of your intentions! Tell you what, the Mullahs in Iran do love people like you!
    Suggestion: Oppose the Mullah by stating the facts! Don’t be obsessed over the Mullahs by using the same line over and over and over! Hopefully this will help you out!

  4. They know that they have aimed the very presence of Iranian nation and heritage. But it is a failed strategy as proved through the history.
    And there are people like Ali who are aligned with the above strategy and in the same time consider themselves loving the same thing that they are trying to destroy in line with minds like MbS! And interestingly they think that they are polite copying and pasting the same message with minor changes and any critics are impolite! This is the dictatorship model of thinking shared between many Ayatollahs, eastern or western, big or thiny!

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