Wednesday, November 4, marked the 30th year since the 444-day Iran hostage crisis began in 1979. On this day, the media traditionally offer us images of Iranians burning American flags and effigies of Uncle Sam. We are reminded of the great chasm of mistrust and misunderstanding that has marked the last three decades of US-Iranian relations. But in the past year, both Americans and Iranians have asked for something new. Americans have elected a president who promises to pursue diplomacy and Iranians have given birth to a popular democratic movement. So, we should not use this 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis to simply relive tragedy and tension. Rather, Americans have an opportunity to honestly reflect on our relationship with Iran and think about how to move forward.
For the past 30 years, our government has dealt with Iran through policies of isolation and sanctions.
As we all witnessed amidst post-election unrest, Iranians have created a new dialogue within their country about respect for human rights and the democratic process. Now, those of us concerned with human rights must drastically alter our own dialogue towards Iran. If we herald the bravery of the “Green Movement,” we should ask what effect crippling sanctions would have for Iran’s human rights prospects?
Days before the United Nations General Assembly opened in September 2009, Human Rights Watch, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and thousands of Iranians standing in solidarity with the Green Movement called on the United Nations to prioritize human rights in discussions about Iran. The Preamble of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights avows that all member states have pledged themselves “to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Yet, in recent discussions regarding Iran, the United Nations Security Council plus Germany focused on the nuclear issue in every instance. In doing so, they have consistently neglected all critical and serious conversations about Iran’s human rights violations.
Furthermore, the negotiating states chose to threaten the very fabric of the domestic resistance with “crippling sanctions.” Economic sanctions that directly affect and isolate a civilian population weaken the ability of people committed to creating a better, more just governance.
Consider, for example, the effects of comprehensive sanctions imposed on Iraq for 13 years. Those who bore the brunt of brutal and lethal punishment caused by economic sanctions were the elderly, the sick, the poor and the children. The sanctions directly contributed toward the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. We should also remember that imposition of comprehensive, multilateral sanctions against Iraq proved to be a rallying cry for support of Saddam Hussein in countries where there was high antagonism against the United States. Saddam Hussein could claim to provide for the Iraqi people while the Americans insisted on starving them.
What effects would greater sanctions have on Iran? The Iranian regime has had years of practice in avoiding sanctions by relying on economic relations with China and Russia. The rising revenue and power of the underground economy has bolstered Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allies who control it.
Meanwhile, sanctions leveled against Iran are creating hardships among the poorest communities in Iran. In 2007, the Iranian government announced fuel rations for private drivers. Due to Iran’s limited refining capabilities, Iran is not energy-independent, despite its vast oil resources. The decision to create rations has led to massive uproar and protest for a people who have already suffered extreme rates of unemployment. Inflation has soared to twenty-five percent. Also, in the last year, Iran has faced a serious drought. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has estimated Iran’s loss of wheat production at 33 percent. The USDA also noted that, due to the drought and reduced reservoir levels, Iran’s hydroelectric generation capacity and supply have been severely cut. These conditions will lead to severe agricultural problems and possibly to food shortages.
Furthering morally bankrupt policies that focus on the nuclear issue and greater sanctions against Iran will harm the Green Movement’s capacity to struggle for democracy and human rights.
Iran has become the world’s poster child for the deficit of democracy that plagues many nations. Citizens of all nations understand justice and agree upon its terms with remarkable consistency across borders. “The arc of history is long,” Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “but it bends towards justice.” For 30 years, our policies have failed to stand up for truth or justice.
A flyer from Tehran University marking this anniversary declares, “Marg bar hich kas,” or “Death to no one.” The Green Movement is turning a page in Iran’s history, creating an opportunity for us to stand up for a new policy based on human rights and the will of the people.
Bitta Mostofi is cofounder of Where Is My Vote, New York. She is an immigrant and civil rights attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kathy Kelly, a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, contributed to this article.