The U.S. has announced plans to shortly implement sanctions against individuals and entities involved in perpetuating violence against Iranian citizens involved in the anti-government demonstrations that occurred in November of 2019. The protests came after the Iranian government announced a 50%-200% increase in gas prices. Citizens responded by taking to the streets, and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei authorized the use of military and police force to reign in the demonstrations. The ensuing violence resulted in a civilian death toll estimated to be anywhere from 200 to 1000 lives lost. Amnesty International reported that the Iranian government additionally attempted to downplay the violence, going so far as to remove bodies from the streets and deny families their right to properly bury their lost one. While the violence reached its peak in 2019, smaller demonstrations and protests occasionally occur thus revealing that there is still much social unrest and the causal issues are unresolved.
The announcement from the U.S. comes near the anniversary of the violent protests. In 2019, the Trump administration voiced its support for the protestors and took credit for the economic sanctions that created a context in which the people voiced their discontentment with the government. Unfortunately, the sanctions are vague in nature and the State Department has declined to comment. Sanctions placed on individuals may simply amount to blacklisting them, but again, the degree of the sanctions and how strictly they’ll be enforced remains in question.
The question could be asked, “Is this enough?” A spokesperson for the U.S. stated, “We’ve been sanctioning Iranian entities nearly every week for the past six months. There’s no reason we would put our foot on the brake now, but we’re not pushing it down on the gas pedal any further either.” Yet despite the mounting pressure placed on Iran, this has not been sufficient to produce the radical change needed, not only in U.S.-Iran relations but also in the handling of domestic affairs in Iran. The deadly protests broke out in 2019 and are still widely unresolved and an onslaught of sanctions will further destabilize the nation. The truth about sanctions, particularly economic sanctions, is that countries, especially those that are unwilling to abandon their own interests in favour of Western interests, can bear the brunt of the sanctions by shifting them onto the citizens. This tactic works especially well in countries where there is already a higher level of inequality. When the economic conditions inevitably worsen, the citizens that have had to bear the hardship may only rally around their own government and become disenfranchised with the country imposing sanctions. Thus, in evaluating the usefulness of their pressure campaign against Iran, the U.S. needs to assess the successes that have occurred thus far and weigh the possibility of further sanctions backfiring. It is true that the Iranian people were inspired to challenge their government, but the strife has persisted for over a year now; fatigue may be setting in, and imposing more stringent measures may first hurt those it’s meant to help.
The Iranian government has responded to the pressure campaign from the U.S. by engaging in a series of actions meant to provoke the U.S. while displaying an air that presents them as unbothered by U.S. action. They are also well aware of the change that is coming in American politics and are already looking past the current administration stating, “We closely follow the future U.S. administration’s activities and know that Mr. Biden has promised the American people that he will restore multilateralism and legitimacy.” There is speculation that the Trump administration is levying so many sanctions near the end of their term in an effort to complicate the takeover of the President-elect in January, the latter figure being known to favor lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for cooperation on security issues. While this theory may be unlikely, it would answer the “Why now?” question that hangs in the air, as some find it suspect that U.S. waited a whole year to act on its discontent with the way Iran handled the protests.
Overall, the change in U.S. administration has many implications for U.S.-Iran relations which may extend to the Iranian people. The protests of 2019-20 are still largely unresolved, and the U.S. sanctioning officials involved shows continued support, while not overstepping their bounds and intervening more than necessary. Still, it may be time to examine more effective solutions if net positive change is to occur.
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