Efforts to restore American and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal—formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—are at an impasse.
President Biden has declared there will be no relaxing of smothering economic sanctions on Iran unless the country first returns to full compliance with the deal. Iran, which began exceeding nuclear enrichment thresholds in response to America’s total withdrawal from the deal under President Trump, wants the United States to begin easing sanctions first.
As that chess game continues, there’s something missing from op-ed pages, network news studios and the House and Senate chambers: a fundamental debate about the morality of economic sanctions.
If we reduce economic sanctions to a general characterization that encompasses both ends and means, we arrive at a truth that is as damning as it is incontrovertible:
Economic sanctions intentionally inflict suffering on civilian populations to force a change in their governments’ policies.
If that has a familiar ring, perhaps it’s because “the intentional use of violence against civilians in order to obtain political aims” is one definition of terrorism.
That’s not to say “sanctions” and “terrorism” are interchangeable terms. However, both practices center on willfully harming civilians to accomplish political goals.
Like Sanctioning Governments, Terrorists Have Political Objectives
Some resist the fact that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are principally motivated by political goals. That’s understandable, given establishment media grossly underreports terrorist motivations.
The resulting vacuum is filled with reflexive and false assumptions—for example, that Muslim terrorists are principally motivated by religion—or deliberately misleading government claims, like President George W. Bush’s baseless assertion that al Qaeda terrorists “hate our freedoms.”
Through various written and recorded pronouncements, Osama bin Laden made al Qaeda’s political motivations clear. His aims included the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East, and termination of U.S. support of the region’s dictators and the government of Israel.
The political nature of terrorism was particularly apparent in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The attacks came three days before Spain’s general election, and a video received by Spanish authorities said the attacks were punishment for the country’s participation in the occupation of Iraq.
On election day, the shaken Spanish population gave an upset victory to the Socialist party, and the newly elected prime minister immediately pledged to withdrawal Spanish troops from Iraq.
Those examples focus on al Qaeda and its kin, but terrorists of all religions, ethnicities and nationalities have political aims. An exhaustive study of worldwide suicide bombing by University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape found nearly all such attacks seek “to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”
Like Terrorists, Sanctioning Governments Intentionally Harm Civilians
In a hearing earlier this month, Senate foreign relations committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who has been one of Capitol Hill’s most prolific authors of Iran sanction legislation, praised sanctions as part of “our arsenal of peaceful diplomacy.”
Perhaps it was a Freudian slip that led him to oxymoronically place his supposedly “peaceful” sanctions inside an “arsenal”—in their effect, there’s little difference between imposing economic sanctions and mining Iranian harbors.
Of course, “peaceful” isn’t the favorite adjective of sanction advocates. When boasting about their handiwork, Menendez and others invariably use a far more appropriate descriptor: “crippling.”
VP Biden on Iran: "These are the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions. Period."
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 12, 2012
Officials assure us that sanctions are meant to cripple governments, but any honest observer understands that’s achieved by first crippling the country’s economy.
Since the concept of economic harm is somewhat abstract, it’s easy for Americans to limit their visualization of that harm to a downward slope on a gross domestic product chart, failing to appreciate what economic warfare means to the everyday lives of individual humans.
Occasionally, though, American media provides a window on the harms being visited upon the Iranian people.
Consider a 2019 Los Angeles Times story, “Middle-Class Iranians Resort to Buying Rotting Produce as U.S. Sanctions Take Toll.” Reading the title alone would give most Americans a far better appreciation of sanctions’ real-world impact. The article provides other examples, such as a single mother forced by skyrocketing prices into abandoning her apartment and moving into her mother’s one-bedroom dwelling.
While the U.S. sanctions regime provides exceptions for Iran’s import of food and medicine, other limitations on the flow of Iranian money—and vendors’ and bankers’ fears of accidentally running afoul of U.S. restrictions—often render those exceptions meaningless.
As a result, sanctions can have profound consequences for Iran’s sick. Among other observations, a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch found:
- Iranian patients with rare diseases were finding it increasingly difficult to access essential, imported medicines
- A pediatric cancer treatment center was unable to acquire medications deemed essential by the World Health Organization
- Patients with epidermolysis bullosa—a rare disease that causes blistering— had their supply of a special kind of foam dressing cut off when a European producer ceased business in Iran due to U.S. sanctions. The domestic alternative dressing “often gets attached to the blisters, causing excruciating pain for the patients,” according to an attorney representing a health NGO.
The report also noted Iranians were finding it harder to acquire imported eye drops, “causing suffering for the large number of patients affected by chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.”
Exasperatingly, many of those eye patients are being victimized by the U.S. government for a second time: During the Iran-Iraq War, American intelligence officials provided targeting information to the Iraqi military, fully aware Saddam Hussein’s forces would attack with chemical weapons.
U.S. sanctions also make civilian air travel in Iran riskier. When the 2015 JCPOA eased sanctions, Iranian airlines rushed to update their aging fleets, placing large orders with Boeing, Airbus and ATR.
However, when self-proclaimed “America-first” President Trump later abandoned the JCPOA and restored sanctions, he denied U.S.-based Boeing billions of dollars of business and forced Iranian airlines to continue patching old jets, often unable to buy replacement parts.
Officials Acknowledge Intent to Harm Civilians
Some readers might be tempted to liken civilian suffering under sanctions to so-called “collateral damage” in warfare, as may happen when a missile goes astray or a bomb target is incorrectly selected.
However, the harm to civilians under economic sanctions isn’t incidental, and those who impose sanctions fully understand they inevitably bring misery and sometimes death to innocents.
In occasional moments of candor, U.S. officials confirm economic sanctions are meant to take a toll on civilians. At a 2007 press conference, President George W. Bush said, “The whole strategy is that, you know, at some point in time leaders or responsible folks inside of Iran may get tired of isolation and say, ‘This isn’t worth it’” (emphasis mine).
When Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA) voiced his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, he argued that “lessening sanctions…would economically reward the Iranian people for supporting those who enslave them.”
If the withdraw of sanctions is an improper reward of Iranian civilians, it logically follows that Cardenas views the imposition of sanctions and their accompanying misery as rightful punishment.
Cardenas’s rationalization of civilian harm is indistinguishable from bin Laden’s. In a 2002 “Letter to America,” bin Laden offered this justification of aggression against civilians:
“The American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies. Thus the American people have chosen, consented to, and affirmed their support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the occupation and usurpation of their land, and its continuous killing, torture, punishment and expulsion of the Palestinians. The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it if they want.”
Current Biden deputy Iran envoy and former Obama sanctions coordinator Richard Nephew wrote the book on sanctions—literally. At The Grayzone this week, Max Blumenthal explored various passages from Nephew’s 2017 book, “The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field.”
Nephew celebrated the tripling of chicken prices “during important Iranian holiday periods,” admitted to having targeted manufacturing jobs, and boasted of having purposefully intensified wealth inequality by devaluing Iran’s currency, thus “depriving most people of the practical benefit of being able to purchase” humanitarian, consumer or luxury goods.
“The Price is Worth It”
When it comes to cold, calculating acceptance of civilian suffering under sanctions in pursuit of political goals, the most infamous example is Madeleine Albright’s 1996 interview on 60 Minutes.
At the time, Albright was ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration, and surveyors had recently estimated that upwards of 576,000 Iraqi children had died because of malnutrition and deterioration of water and sanitation systems caused or exacerbated by UN sanctions promoted by the United States.
Lesley Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And…you know..is the price worth it?
Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.
It’s important to note the survey’s particular child-death estimate has been credibly disputed. A subsequent study placed the combined toll of the Gulf War and subsequent sanctions between 100,000 and 227,000, with the majority attributed to sanctions.
It’s telling that Albright didn’t object to the premise of Stahl’s question. That’s not to say she was validating the “half million” number, but rather that she was stipulating that sanctions did inflict some ghastly toll on Iraqi children that was “worth it” to the U.S. government.
Notably, in a 2004 video, bin Laden listed Iraq sanctions among al Qaeda’s motivating grievances, claiming they inflicted “the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known.”
On 9/11, Bin Laden was party to killing nearly 3,000 civilians in an effort to alter U.S. policy in the Middle East. Even by many of the lower estimates, Albright was party to killing a far higher number—of children alone—in a purported effort to ensure Iraq had no chemical or biological weapons.
In both bin Laden and Albright, we see a calculated acceptance of civilian deaths to achieve political aims. While Bin Laden is rightly reviled for that calculus, Albright is wrongly revered.
For example, when my alma mater, Bucknell University, announced her as its 2019 commencement speaker, it lauded her for having “advocated for…human rights.” University president John Bravman said she led a “life of courageous service” that “left an indelible mark on the world.”
I suppose the tombs of Iraqi children do count as indelible marking.
Sanctions Are Fundamentally Immoral
Like terrorism, economic sanctions intentionally inflict suffering on innocent individuals in pursuit of political objectives. Americans should take no comfort in the fact that this suffering is neatly arranged by government officials using legislation, executive orders, UN resolutions and Treasury regulations.
After all, is it less villainous to kill someone by depriving them of cancer medicine, food or aircraft parts via economic restraints, as compared to blowing them up with a car bomb?
The difference is in the means, not the ends: Instead of using explosives, sanction-enforcing bureaucrats at the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) inflict their harms using phones and computer keyboards.
True, most harms imposed by sanctions aren’t lethal. However, that fact does nothing to buttress their moral standing or absolve their advocates and implementers from guilt.
By unjustly violating innocent individuals’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, economic sanctions are not only inhuman, they’re fundamentally un-American. It’s time for citizens and legislators across the political spectrum to demand their immediate, unconditional and universal termination.
This article was originally featured on Stark Realities and is republished with permission.