On November 14, 1979, 10 days after Iranian students overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran to demand the return of Iran’s deposed Shah, the U.S. first imposed sanctions on Iran. In the four decades since, Iran has been almost continuously under U.S. sanctions.
Almost 40 years to the day after the U.S. first sanctioned Iran, the Iranian government’s announcement of a 50 percent spike in gasoline prices and newly imposed restrictions have led to a wave of protests that has rapidly spread to 100 regions across Iran, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency. The BBC reported Iranian officials have confirmed at least 12 protesters have been killed. Unverified accounts have put the number killed at 40 or higher.
Already under mounting economic pressure from U.S. sanctions, public anger over years of corruption, mismanagement, and Iranian involvement in overseas conflicts have fueled the demonstrations. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and police have been accused of a brutal crackdown and Iran’s internet has essentially been shut down to curtail communication and organizing efforts by protesters.
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Frustration over the lack of economic relief following the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — commonly called the Iran nuclear deal — has contributed to the public anger that erupted last week. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. unilaterally backed out of the deal despite Iran’s full compliance.
In May 2018, under Trump, the U.S. introduced a sweeping new regime of sanctions and a policy of “maximum pressure” intended to bring Iran’s economy to its knees. Now patience in Iranian civil society has worn thin and public support for the nuclear deal has reached a new low.
Even as the United States spends over $1.2 trillion to modernize and expand its own nuclear arsenal, Trump has vowed maximum pressure will prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology. Over the summer, as tensions soared, Trump threatened to obliterate parts of Iran.
U.S. sanctions have put a chokehold on Iran’s economy, isolating nearly every sector of society from the global financial system and hurting ordinary citizens in a range of ways. Everything from Iran’s industrial base and vital oil production, to food, medicine and international scientific partnerships and research is being affected. Universities can’t buy books, engineers can’t purchase software, consumers are cut off from global online services and hospitals are unable to get vital life-saving supplies.
As 42 percent inflation drives up the cost of basic necessities, working- and middle-class Iranians face mounting economic hardship. Iran’s currency, the rial, has been devalued and Iran struggles to import parts needed to maintain its domestic automobile and beleaguered airline industries.
Earlier this year, the U.S. imposed additional new sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, its National Development Fund, on Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, the U.S. threatens secondary sanctions for anyone who does business with Iran.
Being shut out of the international banking system has countless implications for ordinary Iranians. Overseas students can’t receive money, businesses can’t buy from or sell to foreign countries, and all transactions involving foreigners inside the country must be made in cash.
The many Iranian people I have interviewed have described some of the worst sanction impacts as hurting children and patients suffering from cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease and other ailments. Media and academic reports back up their stories. Even when medicines, supplies and equipment are available, they are increasingly unaffordable.
Shahrzad, a senior IT consultant in Tehran who asked to be identified only by her first name, calls sanctions that deny live-saving medical supplies “terrorism.”
“This is not the first time the world was criminally silent,” she told Truthout. “In 1988, the U.S. helped Saddam Hussein as he gassed Iran. An estimated 7,500 Iranian military and civilians were killed by Iraqi troops using nerve gas and mustard agents … by all means, we will neither forgive nor forget. We demand an end to U.S. impunity.”
Hosting a rare group of American visitors last month at the Tehran Peace Museum, three veterans of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) reviewed the history of the conflict, claiming that as many as 65,000 Iranian civilians and soldiers were maimed, killed or still suffer from chemical weapons used by Iraq while Saddam Hussein was being aided by the CIA.
The museum’s executive director, Mohammad Reza Taghipoor Moghadam, introduced two fellow veterans, identified as Mr. Mohammadi and Mr. Roostapour, who still suffer from respiratory and vision problems caused by chemical attacks. Moghadam, who lost both legs in the war, explained how medicines, respirators and air filters that these veterans rely on — as well as the wheelchair he uses — all come from Germany, and are affected by sanctions. “War is a great business for [some] countries,” Moghadam said. “Civilian people who are not politicians do not deserve to be affected by sanctions.”
Defending U.S. sanctions at an Asia Society forum in September, Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, claimed, “Our sanctions regime makes exceptions for food, medicine, medical devices and agricultural products.” He blamed Iran’s government for “not complying with international financial standards.”
A Spiderweb of Sanctions
Sina Toossi, senior research analyst with the National Iranian American Council, disputes Hook’s claims. “There are ostensible humanitarian exemptions through these sanctions, but in practice, [the] OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] and the Treasury Department haven’t given any of the licenses necessary for foreign firms … they can’t have any bank to facilitate these transactions because all the banks are afraid of sanctions,” Toossi told Truthout.
The result, Toossi says, is collective punishment of Iran’s population and the empowerment of the most “hardline, reactionary elements” of the Iranian government who had always been opposed to nuclear negotiations that led to the JCPOA.
Responding to the sudden outbreak of protests, in a written statement Toossi said ordinary Iranians have suffered immense economic hardship from Iranian government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions, adding, “Rather than empower the Iranian people, the Trump administration’s fixation on ‘maximum pressure’ has served to embolden [hardliner] forces.”
Toossi added that sanctions eliminate the potential of humanitarian trade with Iran, closing the few remaining channels for potential diplomacy.
“I think Trump has really set the U.S. and Iran on a collision course, and unless he pivots away from ‘maximum pressure,’ conflict is very possible.” Toossi told Truthout, arguing that Trump’s reneging on the JCPOA and the re-imposition of sanctions have validated hardliners and caused long-term damage to the U.S.’s standing among Iran’s population while eliminating the potential for peaceful democratic change in Iran by emboldening conservative, far-right forces in Iran’s government.
Toossi points out that many of the sanctions are redundant, and together they create what he calls a “spider’s web of sanctions” designed to be so complex, so interwoven, that it will be extremely difficult or impossible to remove, potentially impeding the ability of a post-Trump administration to engage in diplomacy with Iran.
Toossi describes Trump’s Iran sanctions policy as “pressure for pressure’s sake to no specific end,” adding, “This is how diplomacy ended.”
A study of Iranian public opinion conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland published in October supports Toossi’s statement. In the study, researchers found Iranian views of the U.S. had fallen to a 13-year low, support for the JCPOA has been eroded and a sense of pessimism toward future negotiations with the U.S. has grown.
In 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an ultimatum: “The Iranian regime has a choice: it can either do a 180 degree turn from its outlaw course of action and act like a normal country, or it can see its economy crumble. We hope a new agreement with Iran is possible, but until Iran makes changes in the twelve ways that I listed in May, we will be relentless in exerting pressure on the regime.”
Kimia, a 20-year-old book shop employee in the southern city of Shiraz living under the pressure of sanctions, told Truthout, “The main impact of sanctions is on ordinary people … which is so unfair.” Facing the political realities of life in Iran, she asked to be introduced by her first name only. Suffering economically, she says there is no hope or happiness — just a struggle to survive. “Iranians were so optimistic about JCPOA and negotiations … we are still hopefully looking for peace between our two countries.”
Cruel and Counterproductive
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, calls economic sanctions Washington’s “tool of choice” but says that under the Trump administration, the lack of a coherent Iran strategy has made the increasing sanctions into an unjust tool of punishment.
In a recently published report examining U.S. sanctions and the “maximum pressure” campaign, Slavin noted how under both Democrats and Republicans, a pro-sanctions agenda fuels a “growing and lucrative industry” based on sanctions compliance and enforcement employing several thousand Americans.
Despite the Trump administration’s aim to isolate Tehran, Iran’s regional influence is growing; cooperation with Russia, China and others is expanding; and Iran has become more self-reliant, developing an economy that is resistant and resilient but, as fresh protests demonstrate, still vulnerable to disruption and upheaval.
Sanctions haven’t kept international visitors away, either. Groups and individual travelers from China, Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere continue to flock to visit Iran’s most famous cultural and historical sites. Scenes of violent street clashes, however, could change that, at least in the short term.
Plenty of Blame to Go Around
After 40 years of enmity between Iran and the U.S., Kourosh Ziabari, an Iranian reporter for the Asia Times, sees plenty of blame to go around. “The intransigence of the Iranian government and its refusal to follow a conciliatory path with the international community, coupled with the hardline stance of the successive U.S. administrations on Iran, have simply brought about misery for the Iranian people who are the sole victims of this pointless four-decade-old acrimony.”
The Iranian government’s noncompliance with international norms and a determination by the U.S., as well as China and Russia, have led to the suffering and isolation Iran faces today, Ziabari told Truthout in an email. “Overall, the sanctions have rendered Iran a pariah state and taken a heavy toll on the average Iranian.”
Sanctions? What Sanctions?
Yet for all the pain inflicted by sanctions, Iran appears unbowed by the U.S. If the goal of sanctions and maximum pressure is to force Iran into submission, Trump administration officials might be sorely disappointed if they were to pay a visit to Iran. If, however, the Trump administration seeks to fuel discontent among Iran’s population, it likely views current protests with hope that Iran’s people will rise up and topple the Iranian government.
U.S. officials shouldn’t mistake Iranians’ anger with their own government as a potential welcoming of new U.S. interference in Iran’s internal affairs. After decades of economic punishment by Republican and Democrat administrations, Iranians have hardened themselves and are determined to plot their own future.
In the city of Isfahan, Sharifi, a tourism management student who also asked to be identified by first name only, told Truthout that while sanctions hurt Iran’s youth, discouraging them from starting their own businesses, they have also encouraged Iranians to develop new sanction-defying technologies such as mobile phone apps and taught them to “stand on their own feet.”
In the four decades since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has repeatedly proven itself to be resilient and resistant to U.S. pressure. Meanwhile, the U.S. has little to show for doubling down on four decades of punitive and counterproductive policies.
The 40-year anniversary Iran and the United States share this month is nothing to celebrate. Like a scar that won’t heal, it represents missed opportunities, needlessly perpetuated fears, and unfulfilled obligations to improve the lives of people in both nations.