The past month has seen a spate of protests in various Iranian cities following the death of Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the morality police. These have devolved into violence, causing dozens to hundreds of deaths, (depending on the source) with conflicting reports on whether protestors are armed as well as the degree of state violence employed — all complicated by the shutoff of internet access. In response, many western states, most notably the U.S. and Canada, have pronounced their support for the protests, as well as condemnation of the Iranian government.
The method of choice employed by these states have historically been and remain sanctions. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has referred to the present situation as a “black and white issue” that should be a “no-brainer” to deal with (via crushing sanctions, naturally) — and the U.S. is ready to deliver. Secretary of State Antony Blinken decried Iran’s violation of the human rights to freedom of speech and assembly whilst his government rolled out new sanctions against Iranian state officials. This included the reaffirmation of sanctions against Iran’s biggest economic sectors (chiefly oil and finance). As he denounced the “brutal regime,” Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau announced a wave of sanctions with “the most powerful tools at our disposal.” This included the banning of 10,000 members of the IRGC, as well as the investment of U.S. $55 million into the enforcement of previous sanctions (economic, technological, and military) in place. These decisions are largely popular among Canadians, and a protest in support of the protests sweeping Iran boasted fifty thousand attendees in Toronto, the second-largest Iranian diaspora in the world. Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for a group of Canadian families victimized by the PS752 disaster, cited the economic hardship resulting from the pandemic as an accelerating factor for dissenting sentiment among Iranians. This statement hints at a deeper problem: the effect that sweeping sanctions have actually had on Iranians.
As Gissou Nia, director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council, argues, the sanctions have had a profoundly detrimental impact on the Iranian population. Most notably, the general stunt in economic development resulting from being the second most sanctioned country in the world is evident. Notably, Iran reports hundreds of deaths every year due to the inability to access or pay for foreign medicines, because western pharmaceutical companies are too concerned by market volatility resulting from potential further sanctions. Sanctions have even had particular effects on protestors’ ability to organize. Being banned from the internet by the west means dissenters must rely on state-provided services, which can be blocked and searched at the state’s discretion. Moreover, being blocked from the SWIFT exchange system means they cannot pay for western technology to use the internet independently (with VPNs, for example).
The justifications for a maximum pressure strategy are evident: brazen state-backed sexist violence is as unpopular as it is inhumane. But sanctions have less in common with liberal solidarity and more in common with siege starvation tactics as old as war. It is this writer’s belief that economically strangling a nation is neither politically productive nor morally justifiable. It relies on a strategy of collective punishment — the idea that citizens are responsible for their state’s actions — which is all the more execrable given the punishment is doled out in response to the suffering of Iran’s citizens. One must assume, as with North Korea and Russia, that the aim is to create economic suffering so dire that internal dissent becomes inevitable. But — as those countries show — this doesn’t only cause economic and technological suffering, it also fails to produce results: both governments only become more popular as their exhortations against the west’s economic violence are vindicated.
If the west seeks to change Iran, they will have more luck employing a strategy of proximity, not distance. Creating observatory bodies within the country and a system to reprieve the population from sanctions would serve all parties better. The U.S. Treasury Department’s recent exemption of internet sanctions is cause for hope, as is Biden’s aim of returning to Obama’s JCPoA. Ideally, the future of Iran-western relations lies in co-operation, not alienation.
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