Kourosh Ziabari
Last updated: 4 January, 2013

The heartrending story of anti-Iran sanctions

It’s not all about Iran’s nuclear program. When Iranians removed from power the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who carried the accolade of the closest ally of the White House in the Persian Gulf region, the first flames of hostility between Tehran and Washington were fanned.

For more than three decades Iran and the United States have failed to sit at a negotiation table and settle their disputes and come to a comprehensive agreement over forgetting the grievances and starting a new era of reconciliation, mutual understanding and rapprochement. The Iranians every year storm into the streets to chant “Death to America,” and the United States every year intensifies the anti-Iranian sanctions, funds assassinations of Iranian politicians and scientists and ratifies plans to advance “pro-democracy” movements in Iran. I am not here to give a value judgment on which party is doing the right thing, but one thing is certain: the Iranian people are the only victims of this inexplicable hostility and animosity between Tehran and Washington.

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During almost 33 years Iran has been under the hard-hitting sanctions imposed by consecutive U.S. administrations which are renewed and built up every single year. The first set of economic sanctions against Iran were approved by President Jimmy Carter who issued the Executive Order 12170 on November 14, 1979, 10 days after a group of Iranian students captured the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in protest of the U.S. support for the deposed Shah and took a total of 52 Americans working at the embassy as hostage.

“I, Jimmy Carter, President of the United States, find that the situation in Iran constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.

“I hereby order blocked all property and interests in property of the Government of Iran, its instrumentalities and controlled entities and the Central Bank of Iran which are or become subject to the jurisdiction of the United States or which are in or come within the possession or control of persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,” President Carter ordered.

The sanctions were not lifted after Iran released all the hostages on January 20, 1981, and following the invasion of Iran by Iraq which was spearheaded and supported by the United States and its European allies, the United States astonishingly tightened the grip of sanctions on Iran, exacerbating the life of innocent civilians at a critical time when Saddam Hussein, armed to the teeth, was pounding and bombing Iranian cities on a daily basis. In 1984, a new set of sanctions were adopted which prohibited the sales of arms and provision of military or financial assistance to Iran during the war with Iraq, and on October 29, 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued the Executive Order 12613 by which all kinds of financial transactions with Iran were declared illegal and forbidden.

The tensions between the two arch-foes continued until a time when a remarkable event transformed the political atmosphere of Iran. When Iranians elected Seyed Mohammad Khatami in 1997 as the president, everybody expected that Washington may alter its attitude toward Iran, because President Khatami was a pro-reform figure whose foreign policy was based on détente and reconciliation with the West and the United States. However, Bill Clinton didn’t ease the sanctions and hostilities continued, even though President Khatami used every opportunity to reach out to the United States despite the pressure he was facing from the conservatives in Iran who didn’t favor dialogue with the U.S.

With George W. Bush’s coming to power in 2001, Iran’s nuclear program became a central theme in the U.S. foreign policy, and Iran was branded as a part of the so-called Axis of Evil. The sanctions were toughened and an international campaign for isolating Iran began to take shape. Bush penalized many of his fellow citizens for doing business with Iran, and blocked the properties of hundreds of Iranian companies and individuals. He threatened Iran with the use of force and warned it repeatedly against a possible military strike on its nuclear facilities and even a regime change in Tehran, which he was not ashamed of openly bragging about.

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In 2007, ABC news reported that President Bush had authorized a $400 million bill for covert operations to create unrest in Iran. It was during his tenure that the Congress passed a law and allocated $120 million for anti-Iranian media propaganda. Oddly enough, the sanctions even encompassed scientific cooperation between Iranian academics and American universities and scientific institutions. For instance, in 2002 the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) deprived its Iranian members of different advantages and benefits, including the use of IEEE logo for promotional activities, electronic access to publications and access to job listings. In 2004, the U.S. Department of the Treasury ruled that editing or publishing scientific manuscripts from Iran violates the trade embargo on the country and thus several U.S. scientific publications started to refuse articles and research papers by Iranian academics.

The legacy of confrontation with Iran as a “rogue state” was inherited by President Obama who came to the Oval Office with a shining motto of “change.” Many Iranians had expected that he would realize the changes he had promised, and especially revise the course of Bush’s adventurous foreign policy. But after a while, it transpired that he is not that much different from his predecessor as he renewed the U.S. economic sanctions against Iran only one year after he came to office.

“The actions and policies of the government of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States in the region and pose a continuing and unusual and extraordinary threat,” said Obama in a message to the U.S. Congress after renewing the annual sanctions against Iran in March 2009.

In 2012 and with the escalation of conflict with Iran over its nuclear program, the United States hardened the sanctions and somewhat forced Iran’s major trade partners in the European Union, Asia and Africa to stop doing business with and buying oil from Iran. As a result of the U.S. pressures, the EU imposed an oil embargo against Iran and stopped buying its crude on July 1, 2012. Subsequently, Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Switzerland also adopted unilateral sanctions against Iran and the oil-rich country was literally targeted with an all-out economic warfare launched by the United States and its allies. As a result of these backbreaking sanctions, Iran’s currency, the rial, dropped to its lowest value against dollar in the late 2012 and, according to economists, lost almost 70% of its value. The country also began to experience a staggering hyperinflation with the price of consumer goods increasing twofold and threefold every single day.

Now, aside from the oil embargo, a variety of foodstuffs, agricultural crops, medicines and medical equipment, computer devices, gold, clothes and humanitarian goods are considered as banned goods for Iran and this is what makes the daily life deteriorating and more difficult by the day. To add insult to the injury, consider the number of civilians killed every year in Iran in deadly air crashes, a direct result of the U.S. embargo that makes it impossible for Iran to buy new and modern aircrafts and refresh its aging, outdated fleet.

But is Iran capable of maintaining its economy in the face of these overwhelming sanctions? What will happen to the lives of the Iranian people? Won’t these sanctions decimate the chances of a possible reconciliation between Iran and the United States? Aren’t these sanctions some kind of violation of human rights? In order to find compelling answers for these questions, I contacted some renowned Iranian experts whom I knew had interesting things to say about the sanctions.

Richard Javad Heydarian, a foreign affairs analyst and Asia Times contributor said that “although touted as ‘targeted’ measures against Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programs, the transatlantic sanctions, beginning in late-2011 and coming into full force on July 2012, are ruthlessly eroding the very foundations of Iran’s entire civilian economy, upon which almost 75 million Iranians depend for daily survival.”

“In the language of international law, we are arguably speaking of ‘collective punishment,’ because they directly hit Iran’s main exports, namely oil and gas, and shut out Iran’s major financial institutions, including the Iranian Central Bank from mainstream global financial channels, so it comes as no surprise that they are affecting Iranians of all walks of life, especially the poor and the majority lower-middle class population,” he added.

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Analyzing the economic impact of the sanctions, Heydarian notes, “oil revenues are down by almost 50 percent, the fiscal deficit are widening to a decade-high, inflation has passed the 25 percent threshold, and the currency has lost almost 70 percent of its value…With a 40 percent merchandise-to-GDP ratio (the total value of merchandize trade in dollar terms), Iran is indeed vulnerable to the massive currency fluctuations. The IMF and IIF are estimating about 3 percent GDP contraction this year, so the sanctions are disruptive and hurting the whole country.”

According to Heydarian, the sanctions have deprived Iran of the opportunity to meet its most rudimentary needs: “due to the sanctions, Iran is finding it increasingly difficult to access international markets for purchase of even the most basic commodities, from food to clothing and medicine, as it struggles to process multi-billion oil deals in foreign currencies. It is already forced to engage in barter deals with countries such as India and China, which are crowding out Iran’s large domestic industrial base.”

This political analyst believes that Iran is losing its trade partners as a result of the sanctions: “Due to financial sanctions and growing American pressure, even regional trading partners such as the UAE and Oman have increasingly denied Iranian traders short-term loans, credit financing, and banking access, while more liquid traders are forced to rely on unscrupulous financial intermediaries and/or highly expensive payment schemes to conduct trade transactions.”

So, what will happen in the future? Where is the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear program headed to? Are the sanctions going to remain in place and make the daily life painful and throbbing for Iranians? Heydarian responds: “Not only has the West refused to show significant flexibility in three consecutive high-level talks, namely the Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow negotiations…(last) year, between Iran and the world powers, the so-called P5+1, but its incessant push on the sanctions regime is undercutting negotiations – given the dearth of an atmosphere of mutual-compromise and trust. In absence of West’s flexibility on the sanctions, I do not think that Iran will consider unilateral concessions.”

Abolghasem Bayyenat, an independent political analyst and a Ph.D. candidate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University also believes that the sanctions are not “targeted” and “smart” as claimed by the West, and only serve to punish and penalize the ordinary citizens: “It should be evident that the Western-imposed sanctions on Iran lack any sound moral and legal justifications and are contrary to international human rights standards as well as what has publicly been advertised by Western politicians themselves. The sanctions are not targeted and ‘smart’, as initially claimed by Western politicians, but are indiscriminate and ‘dumb’ in nature, in that they hurt the whole civilian population of Iran and impose collective punishment on them.”

“Funding nuclear activities constitute a tiny fraction of Iran’s public budget and, as such, trying to deprive a nation of its entire public revenues to only deny it funding sources for its IAEA-monitored nuclear program is not only absurd and illogical but is also hypocritical,” he added.

This political commentator believes that the sanctions will increase the government’s legitimacy and create solidarity among the people instead of pushing them to revolt. He also says that the sanctions undermine the spirit of cooperation and constructive dialogue between Iran and the world powers: “The current Western strategy to impose crippling economic sanctions on Iran is detrimental to the prospects of peacefully resolving Iran’s nuclear issue and is not likely to meet its stated goal of bringing drastic change in Iran’s nuclear position.”

“Economic hardships do not automatically and mechanically produce public revolt against the government in Iran. What is more important than the scope of objective economic hardships is how they are perceived by the general public in Iran. The general Iranian public tends to sympathize with the official narrative that economic hardships are the price that they need to pay for safeguarding their political independence,” he said.

Bayyenat said that the impact of the West’s sanctions on Iran can be felt in two ways: “The first impact is effected through fueling rampant inflation in Iran. The sharp rise in the price of commodities and other consumer goods aggravated by the partly sanctions-induced currency depreciation has eroded the general welfare of ordinary Iranians and is likely to create further economic hardships for them, if not mitigated.”

“Second, the Western-imposed sanctions on Iran gradually undermine the capacity of the government of Iran to provide public welfare programs and other social services to its people by cutting its revenues and hindering its capacity to engage in financial transactions with foreign countries to import necessary foodstuffs and medicine. The sick, the elderly, children and the working class in general suffer the most as a result of the Western-imposed sanctions on Iran,” he adds.

Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a Reader in Comparative Politics and International Relations and Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS, University of London opines that domestic mismanagement coupled with the economic sanctions of the United States and its European allies have made the daily life in Iran increasingly grim: “The sanctions hit Iran’s embattled civil society which is caught between a largely incompetent state and a predatory international community that is taking every advantage out of the domestic situation in the country and the crisis of politics that ensued in the last couple of years.”

“The sanctions have made it harder for Iranian families to access drugs and medication including for cancer and blood disorders such as hemophilia. The negative impact on Iran’s aging civilian planes is well known. The sanctions have also made it gruellingly difficult to transfer money into and from Iran, and so many students studying abroad are short of funds from their family members. None of this really has a political dividend or bothers the Iranian state. It is Iranian society that is bearing the brunt of an intolerable situation,” Adib-Moghaddam noted.

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This university professor admits that the sanctions are inhumane and unjustifiable, but he also argues that the government has played its own role in the emergence of the current crisis: “There is no doubt that these kinds of sanctions are a war by other means. The hypocrisy is obvious to anyone with a hint of political intelligence. But here as well, Iranians are targeted from two sides: the sanctions regime enforced by the United States and the systematic violation of human dignity by influential sections of the Iranian state. The inability of the current government of President Ahmadinejad to navigate the nation out of either crisis is testimony to its political failure.”

Canadian-Iranian freelance political analyst, Shahir Shahid Saless, whose writings have appeared on Guardian, Al-Monitor and Asia Times, traces the roots of current tensions between Iran and the United States in a historical mistrust that started when Iranians toppled the U.S.-backed Shah in a popular revolution in 1979.

“Iran and the U.S. are locked in a cold war relationship which, while not unprecedented, is almost unique for its pattern of non-communication (or inconsistent and failing communications) and non-compromise. This state of relations has lasted three decades. Even during the Cold War the U.S. not only would negotiate with its adversaries but also had diplomatic and economic relations with them. U.S.-Iran relationship is an abnormality where the two governments simply cannot talk to each other in a meaningful way. Accumulation of decades of perceived betrayals, which has resulted in the formation of profound mutual mistrust, is largely responsible for the failure of the formation of a negotiation process between the two states,” he stressed.

“It is a sound contention that when the Islamic Republic came to exist, seeds of mistrust between the two states had already been planted. The admitted role of the U.S. in the 1953 coup d’état and the overthrow of Mossadegh, Iran’s popular and democratically-elected Prime Minister, is central to and the beginning of the debate of mistrust between Iran and the U.S. The seizure of the American embassy in 1979 and the disclosure of espionage documents taken from the embassy escalated the Iranian regime’s mistrust of the U.S. in an already unsteady relationship. Since then the fear of regime change has acted as a barrier to the restoration of the relations. The hostage crisis created a cycle of mistrust that has not been addressed, let alone broken to this date.”

Shahid Saless believes that Iran’s nuclear program further heightened the wall of mistrust and with the imposition of sanctions on Iran by the United States, the two countries are now literally entangled in a diplomatic stalemate: “Sanctions, ostensibly, heightens mistrust. Interestingly, this is acknowledged by experts such as Ray Takeyh and Kenneth Pollack, who are consulted by the U.S. government and are advocates of draconian sanctions. You don’t need to be a genius to understand that extreme mistrust will continue to block the formation of negotiation process let alone a negotiated solution.”

There are few wise and decent people in the world who endorse the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. First of all, there’s no convincing evidence that Iran’s nuclear program has a military dimension and so there’s no reason to punish Iran with such unbridled sanctions, and most importantly, these sanctions are paralyzing the daily life of the Iranian citizens who want to live a peaceful and untroubled life aside from the political differences and conflicts their government has had with the Western states.

The United States has regularly chastised Iran for its alleged violations of human rights, but it seems that it’s taking the lead in violating the most fundamental rights of the Iranian people, equally human beings, in an atrocious manner by imposing these stringent sanctions with their huge humanitarian impact.

Although some progress was made in last year’s dialogues between Iran and six world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program, it seems that the only key to resolving the erosive conflict over the nuclear program is lasting bilateral talks between Iran and the United States; the two adversaries which can bring peace and stability to the Middle East by putting aside the acrimonies and moving toward reconciliation which will be an all-out diplomatic breakthrough for the whole international community.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.