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Sanctions are not the key to Iran deal; most cases show that they are brutal and futile

July 11, 2015 at 10:53 am

On the eve of renewed sanctions by Washington, Iranian protesters demonstrate outside the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran on 4 November 2018 [ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images]

The seven nations involved in the Iran nuclear talks are desperately trying to meet a deadline for an agreement which would curtail Iran’s nuclear capability, however, Washington’s refusal to budge on Tehran’s demands for relief on economic sanctions is stalling the process.

The interlocking matrix of sanctions holding Iran hostage are a result of years of sanctions placed on the country by the United States, the United Nations and a variety of countries. The US sanctions which began in response to the Tehran hostage crisis in 1979, have been used for over three decades in an attempt to influence the country’s policies. In 2006, the UN also began enforcing sanctions as punishment for the country’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment following a damning International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on the country’s non-compliance. Sanctions in place range from banning arms exports, to a ban on any transactions with Iranian banks and financial institutions. Many sanctions target Iran’s financial, oil and petrochemical sector.

The use of sanctions to assert influence over the decision making of leaders has been used in North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Congo and many other weak and vulnerable states. But have they worked? Chicago academic Robert Pape’s studies in the 1990’s led him to the conclusion that almost all of the century’s 115 cases of sanctions being used showed they were mostly futile or counter-productive. He found that only 4%-5% of sanctions succeeded in gaining concessions from the sanctioned state.

Many support the use of sanctions because they are seen as a peaceful alternative to war. But like war, sanctions hit civilians the hardest. In the 1990’s, the US-UK imposed UN sanctions regime resulted in the deaths 1.7 million Iraqi civilians, between 500,000 and 600,000 were children. The World Health Organisation reported that sanctions had forced people into a diet of “semi-starvation” and child mortality rates for children under five increased six-fold. A renowned epidemiologist at Columbia University said that there were almost no other documented cases of such an increase anywhere else in the modern world.

The UN’s Food for Oil Program purpose was to remedy the situation by allowing Iraq to sell some of its oil and use the profits to buy necessary humanitarian items. However, the US often blocked the delivery of humanitarian goods, sometimes withholding a single essential element of an approved item. For example, Iraq was allowed to purchase a sewage treatment plant but was blocked from buying the generator necessary to run it. The US and other Western governments were no doubt hoping that the large-scale misery bought on by the sanctions could induce a mass uprising against Saddam which would lead to regime change or at least force Hussein to fully cooperate with their demands.

Saddam outwitted them, introducing a food rationing system that is credited for saving thousands from starvation. The reliance on the government for survival was more likely to breed loyalty, not dissent and the blame for their desperate situation was squarely placed on the Western governments shoulders. They had ultimately shot themselves in the foot; the sanctions had transformed the country from one with trusted hospitals and an educated population, to one with a skyrocketing infant mortality rate and an impoverished society dependant on food aid handouts- no doubt whipping up anti- Western feeling that would only grow after the 2003 invasion.

The US also initiated economic sanctions against the DPRK after the Korean War in 1953, and exploited Pyongyang’s nuclear programs as the pretext to impose new ones. The current sanctions have failed to curtail nuclear ambitions or human rights abuses, but they have worked to isolate the country and its citizens. This isolation has worked to shield both North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and its poor human rights record from critics.

Like Saddam who was rated number seven on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people during the sanctions regime, the political elite of North Korea barely felt the sanctions pinch. North Korea flouted the UN sanctions imposed after it detonated two nuclear warheads, hiking up its spending on luxury goods, despite UN resolutions having banned this. At the time, an estimated 6 million people were facing starvation, a sixth of the total population. Sanctions rely on the governments being affected by the situation facing the citizens of their country.

For Iran, the sanctions have no doubt bitten hard. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama boasted that the US- sponsored economic sanctions against Iran were “crippling the economy.” He also stated, “their economy is in shambles.” Who paid the price? The rial devalued by up to 80% from 2010. GDP fell by 5.3% in 2013 alone. The Associated Press reported in 2013 that the price of an imported wheelchair has increased ten-fold in just a one year period. The price for a cancer patient to receive chemotherapy has nearly tripled, and filters for kidney dialysis have increased by 325 percent.

This is not to say all economic sanctions are ineffective. Those placed on South Africa are largely credited with bringing an end to Apartheid. In Israel, the popular Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is pushing for similar sanctions, but it is reasonable to believe that Israel would respond to these well as it strongly values its relationship with western governments. Citizens of Israel also have the power to change the status quo of their government via democratic elections, not through mass uprising as required under the sanctions rationale of Iraq, for example, where elections did not decide who was in power.

In 2012, Ayatollah Khamenei admitted that sanctions were “painful and crippling,” But he also said the sanctions would ultimately benefit his country. “They will make us more self-reliant,” he said, in a translation by Iran’s Fars news agency.

According to the Guardian, in 2014, president Hassan’s first year of office, the economy* rebounded out of recession and grew 2.8%, The IMF predicts growth of 0.6% and 1.3% in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Inflation is down from 45% under the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to 15% today. The absence of legal shipping forces businesses to use smuggling networks. The lack of normal banking, ensures ordinary transactions go through illicit financial routes.

Most sanctions are a form of economic blackmail used by certain governments to influence other government’s policies. Over a century of sanctions should have taught us that this is a failed tactic in the majority of cases. Firstly, it is rarely ever the political elite, the targets of the sanctions campaign, that feel its consequences. Even if the hardships faced by everyday citizens as a result of the sanctions are intended to induce leaders to submit to foreign demands, this is dangerous game played with innocent lives. Either way, it is collective punishment- something explicitly prohibited by international law. Secondly, in the overwhelming majority of cases, sanctions alone mostly do not work; the US is still talking about whether to remove the sanctions it placed on Cuba after half a century of them failing to bring down the Castro leadership. They also rely on the misconception that capitalism underpins the ideology of all leaders.

Thirdly; we must not see them as a peaceful alternative to war, but a different kind of war; one that can be just as brutal and pointless, if, like in Iran, their chances of them working are slim.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.