US President Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran. Photo:  AFP / Saul Loeb
Then-US president Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the JCPOA in 2018, a move applauded by Israel at the time. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

Forty-two years ago, Iran was a crucial party to the alliance of Western powers, crowned by US president Jimmy Carter as “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.” Today, the same country, having undergone a political metamorphosis, is the bête noire of that alliance, aggregated by George W Bush into an “Axis of Evil,” blamed as culpable for a catalogue of challenges facing humanity.

As a comeuppance for its post-1979 policies and actions seen by the world as destructive and malign, Iran has been disciplined with unsparing economic sanctions. The United States, the foremost enforcer of these punitive measures, oversees sanctions regimes targeting nearly 30 countries. Yet the sanctions on Iran are more broad-ranging, forceful and sophisticated than any country in history has ever been subjected to.

The result is that for more than four decades, Iran has been an international outcast, walled off from the rest of the world, with minimal financial, banking, energy, transportation, industrial and scientific ties with other nations.

Sanctions were intensified in the late 2000s, when Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship began to unnerve the United States and its partners, and one after another, Iranian government bodies, companies, manufacturers, financial institutions and individuals were blacklisted for their roles in turbocharging Iran’s nuclear program.

The sanctions, however, did not remain confined to the catalysts of Iran’s nuclear enterprise, and were expanded on multiple occasions to outlaw any sort of trade and engagement with the Islamic Republic or anything that could keep the country’s economy afloat, including its acquisition of foreign currencies, precious metals, cars, aircraft and global insurance services.

The sanctions, in all their different forms and varieties, were based throughout these years on an unvarying objective: to punish Iran.

When we talk of “punishment,” we actually need to determine who is going to be punished, and for what misdeeds.

Let’s take it for granted – of course fallaciously – that Iran is the ultimate bogeyman and deserves to be punished for all the harms it has apparently done to the world. But when we consider a geopolitical entity that is being penalized for its wrongs within the framework of international norms, should we conceive it as a clique of hostile politicians ruling in a vacuum, or are there human subjects who might be affected as well?

In the case of Iran, there are nearly 85 million human beings who have been helplessly bearing the brunt of this perdition, only to witness their economies shrinking, their purchasing power eroding, their civil liberties vanishing, their international mobility tapering off, their educational opportunities ebbing away, their health deteriorating and their jobs slipping out of their grasp.

There are sanctions aficionados who casually equate this caustic human suffering with “collateral damage” inevitably sustained when belligerents are at war. They argue that for such damage to be averted, the governments that put in place policies that precipitate sanctions simply have to revise their trajectory, and then restrictions will be lifted.

They also point out that sanctions imposed for non-proliferation purposes or on grounds of human-rights violations always come with humanitarian exemptions, leaving room for legitimate trade vital to the survival of the general population.

These arguments are simply flawed and gloss over the perniciousness and unacceptability of sanctions when they are indiscriminate and target entire segments of a nation’s economy. The proponents fail to respond with any assurance to the question, “How many instances of long-term, extensive economic sanctions against sovereign nations are there showing the success of these measures?”

Perhaps the most glaring example of the failure of US sanctions is Cuba, a country struggling with a five-decade embargo, which has hardly persuaded it to discard its anti-US antipathy or change any of its policies.

Stanford University scholars, in a comprehensive investigation, surveyed more than 100 examples of economic sanctions against various targets, and concluded that only 34% of these measures were successful in achieving their stated goals.

There are more pessimistic scholars as well. The 2007 book Economic Sanctions Reconsidered by Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott and Kimberly Ann Elliott cited a mere 5% success rate for the global sanctions regimes.

In the case of Iran, since the first sanctions were imposed in November 1979 by Carter, until now when they have been maddeningly redoubled by President Donald Trump, only a silhouette of success can be glimpsed: Iran is ramping up its fissile-material enrichment and nuclear activities, its human-rights violations show no sign of relenting, and its sponsorship of proxies across the Middle East continues unabated, all in defiance of the sanctions that were and are engineered to coerce it into altering its policies and conduct.

The only achievement of the anti-Iran sanctions campaign has been pulling off a full-blown human tragedy: decapacitating and disempowering a strikingly young civilian population – 60% of the population is under 30 – pitching them into isolation, denying them the chance to actualize their potentials and depriving them of the wherewithal to make progress intellectually and financially.

A nation that is reputed as the inheritor of a revered historic civilization with cherished contributions to global culture, arts, sciences and letters is now associated with dreadful stereotypes and on the receiving end of discrimination and prejudice.

Advocates of the sanctions assert that pressure should be built up to the point that Iranian society rises up against the ruling elite, either forcing sweeping reforms or toppling the regime outright, to be replaced by a new government that fetches them better livelihoods and welfare. This is fanciful daydreaming and impractical, and those who truthfully relate to the realities of Iran’s fragmented society admit is a hope that rings hollow.

Sadly, it has become a lot costly for independent, progressive journalists, academicians, scholars, pundits and policymakers to raise their voice in protest against the sanctions and their human toll.

As soon as somebody writes or speaks in condemnation of the sanctions, particularly on platforms with high visibility, hardcore partisans from ultraconservative think-tanks or Iran-hating hangers-on based in troll farms kick up a fuss, rattling off attacks against those they claim are “agents” or “apologists” of the “Iranian regime” campaigning to normalize a rogue state.

These stalwarts either don’t realize or willfully ignore that for some 85 million inhabitants of this troubled land, sanctions mean buying the most rudimentary and essential goods such as cooking oil, poultry, meat, eggs, rice and baby diaper at tripled or quadrupled prices, failing to find life-saving medicine for chronic diseases on a daily basis and resorting to the cold-hearted brokers of the black market, dying in frequent car crashes and air accidents because the country cannot afford to purchase new vehicles and renovate its aging aviation fleet, and a constellation of other misfortunes.

Of course, the underlying reasons giving birth to these Machiavellian sanctions merit serious debate. Nobody can deny the dysfunctional, counterproductive nature of some of Iran’s policies, that it is being a disobedient member of the international community and failing to abide by many norms and standards, and that it is not able to devise constructive relations with the community of nations.

But to root for sanctions and whipping them up only because the government in Tehran is not their favorite choice is immoral, a perversion of human values.

Like it or not, the sanctions are savage. They are blocking Iran’s pathways to purchasing vaccination amid a deadly Covid-19 pandemic while the entire world is rushing to import those vaccines, which scientists have produced to save all of humanity.

Blanket sanctions are inhumane. Period.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.