The idea behind sanctions is to create economic pain that will force the Iranian government to change its behavior. As I wrote yesterday, the Iranian regime is actually more likely to benefit, economically and politically, from sanctions than to be harmed by them. Whom then will the sanctions hurt?
The Iranian people are the ones who will bear the brunt of the sanctions, which is harmful at any time, but particularly dangerous in the current delicate internal situation. When calling for a new election, Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi expressed her opposition to sanctions, noting, “Economic sanctions would only aggravate the people’s hardship.” Another quote from Trita Parsi’s helpful testimony to Congress:
First, the Iranian people– who tend to have great admiration and respect for America, for American values and for the American people – have suffered the brunt of the economic pressures. The Iranian government, meanwhile, has remained relatively unscathed. While the government can use oil revenues as a cushion to offset the effects of sanctions, ordinary people in Iran do not have that option and bear the brunt of the economic pain…
…Economic sanctions have undermined Iran’s pro-democracy movement by weakening Iran’s civil society and by hampering the emergence of a wealthy middle class – key components of any indigenous process of democratization. The creation of a middle class whose income is dependent on the advancement of the non-state economy in Iran is essential, mindful of the significant portion of Iranians who are dependent on and tied to the state-controlled economy. As long as the lion’s share of the economy is controlled by the state, room for pushing for political liberalization will be severely limited.
Neoconservative Fred Kagan, a supporter of sanctions against Iran, bluntly acknowledged, “Look, we need to be honest about this. Iranians are going to die if we impose additional sanctions.” For what cause will these innocent civilians die? As I wrote earlier this week, sanctions against Iran are not going to change the government’s behavior, which means supporters of this approach are advocating human suffering, bad enough on its own, without even the promise of measurable political impact.
Some people are inclined to take the more punitive route based on their disgust at the Iranian government’s treatment of protesters. While the outrage is warranted, sanctions are a misguided and dangerous response. If we want to support the pro-democracy movement in Iran, we must follow its lead. As author and professor Hamid Dabashi noted:
So far as the emerging civil rights movement is concerned, there is absolutely not a shred of evidence that any major or even minor opposition leader — from Mir Hossein Moussavi to Mehdi Karrubi to Mohammad Khatami, or any of their related political organs or legitimate representatives — has ever uttered a word that could possibly be interpreted as calling for or endorsing any sort of economic sanction against Iran, let alone “crippling sanctions.”
Iranian human rights activist Akbar Ganji, a dissident who has served prison time in Iran, stated on Democracy Now:
What we are suggesting to the West and to the United Nations is that if you launch an attack on Iran and if you enforce military sanctions, this will destroy the Iranian people. Why would you punish the Iranian people? You should not punish the Iranian people; punish the Iranian regime, rather.
In a statement on Iran, forty “engaged scholars” wrote:
Also, it is astonishing that precisely those who have supported crippling sanctions and pushed for preventive strikes against Iran whereby civilians have been and would be harmed, suddenly speak about solidarity with the Iranian people. They only will be convincing when they stand up against sanctions and the threat of force and advocate a peaceful dialogue in the region.
It’s striking to watch people like John “bomb bomb Iran” McCain purport to be champions of Iranian human rights as a way to continue pushing for a return to the Bush administration’s failed policy of sanctions and isolation. Broad economic sanctions on Iran are only going to create hardship for the general population, a punishment that is unconscionable, especially when it won’t even bring the promised results of changes in the government’s behavior.
Some people believe that the economic pain the Iranian people will face will indirectly affect the regime—the population will rise up in anger and weaken their government. In my next post, I’ll address why this does not reflect the reality in Iran.