On Al Jazeera’s Inside Story this week, see here, Hillary underscored that, notwithstanding Western rhetoric about “targeted” measures that punish the Iranian government but somehow spare ordinary Iranians, the real purpose of sanctions is “to increase hardship for ordinary Iranians”—just as “sanctions imposed on other governments and other systems, like the sanctions that were imposed for over a decade on Iraq,” were intended to make ordinary Iraqis suffer. In contrast to the all-too-frequent line put forward in Washington, Hillary makes clear that the sanctions against Iran “are in no way targeted. When you sanction the Central Bank of Iran, when you say that SWIFT can’t handle banking transactions into and out of Iran, you are covering transactions that people need in order to buy food and medicine…There’s nothing targeted about it.”
As Hillary reminds, we know very well how effective sanctions proved at making ordinary Iraqis suffer; more than one million Iraqi civilians—half of them children—died as a result of their imposition. This was the policy that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright revoltingly defended with her claim that “the price was worth it.” And worth it for what? As Hillary recounts, “to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons he didn’t have.”
Likewise, the United States is sanctioning Iranians “over a nuclear weapons program that the Islamic Republic does not have. Both the U.S. intelligence agencies and even the Israeli intelligence agencies say that the Islamic Republic does not have a weapons program.” Yet, we are going through the same “bad movie once again” as with Iraq.
The claim that sanctions are intended to facilitate nuclear diplomacy is, to say the least, disingenuous. As Hillary describes, the underlying problem that the United States and its allies have with the Islamic Republic is not just the nuclear program. Sanctions in the United States and elsewhere against Iran have been authorized over
“the nuclear issue, but also on questions about Iran’s human rights behavior and human rights and its supposed sponsorship of terrorism…If, for some reason, there were some kind of progress, some kind of advance in nuclear talks…the United States could not lift its sanctions, for two reasons. One, most of the sanctions have been done legislatively, so whatever the President wants to do doesn’t matter; Congress here will have a veto. And two, even if there were progress on the nuclear issue, that would do nothing to address the United States’ supposed concerns about Iran’s human rights and support for so-called terrorism…There’s no way that Iran gets out of this, just like there was no way that Iraq could get out from under its sanctions.”
So why do American administrations and the Congress want to inflict such suffering on mass populations in countries that defy Washington? As Hillary explains, the United States does this “with the idea that [people] will then rise up and overthrew their government and get rid of a system that Washington does not like.” (One of the other guests, Sadeq Zibakalam of the University of Tehran, observes that most Iranians do not believe that the sanctions are really about Iran’s nuclear activities; from an Iranian perspective, if America and its allies were not focused on the nuclear issue, they “would have picked up on something else” as an excuse to punish the Islamic Republic for its revolutionary origins and insistence on an independent foreign policy.)
Yet, as Hillary relates, history shows that sanctions do not work actually to force a population to rise up and overthrow its government. Even after killing over one million Iraqis, sanctions did not move Iraqis to overthrow their government—only an armed invasion by the United States did so. More significantly, the specific historical experience with sanctioning post-revolutionary Iran indicates that the Islamic Republic responds to the infliction of hardship with “an increased ability to rely on indigenous production, indigenous capacity”—from the Iran-Iraq war until the present day.
Of course, the historical record is poorly understood in much of the world where the Islamic Republic is concerned. Even on this Inside Story episode, Al Jazeera’s moderator makes two shockingly inaccurate claims—that Iran “is importing gasoline at the moment, simply because it does not have the infrastructure or, indeed, the economic power at the moment to refine enough gasoline for the automobiles within its own country” (the Islamic Republic is now a net exporter of gasoline) and that “this raises questions about a country that can have the ability to refine uranium to the 20-percent in which it can be used in nuclear weapons” (20-percent enrichment is, of course, nowhere close to the level required for weapons-grade fissile material).
Hillary drives home that a widespread lack of historical knowledge about sanctions and contemporary realities in the Middle East allows those “who want to have even more forceful, coercive, military actions” to say “look, sanctions didn’t work, we checked that box, [and now] we have to take even more military, more aggressive action against this recalcitrant state that is challenging, particularly, U.S. policies and preferences. That is exactly what happened with Iraq, and this is, unfortunately, the road we’re on with Iran.”
And Hillary makes clear that such an outcome will impose severe costs not just on the Islamic Republic, but even more so on the United States itself: “The problem is not only the moral cost of the number of Iranians who will suffer, but…what this will do to the United States—our position in the Middle East and our position in the global economy. We cannot afford yet again to make a mistake, as we did in Iraq, and to make it on a scale exponentially larger with the Islamic Republic of Iran…My concern is that this path leads us to another unnecessary war in the Middle East, that will not only kill people but will dramatically degrade America’s standing.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett