Four decades of conflict between the US and Iran are entering a new stage after Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal.
The US government is poised to reimpose devastating economic sanctions — on everything from Iran buying or acquiring US dollars, to commerce in Iran’s ports, to exports of Iranian oil, to transactions with the Central Bank of Iran, and the list goes on.
The price will be paid, as it was before, by ordinary Iranians, and especially children.
Because of the impact of sanctions in a few brief years before the nuclear deal was signed, families in Iran living in poverty nearly doubled to more than 40 percent in 2014 — and the value of the country’s currency, the Rial, plummeted, causing the prices of basic necessities like milk, tea, fruits and vegetables to skyrocket.
According to a Guardian report in 2013: “Hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by the unintended consequences of international sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of lifesaving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and blood-clotting agents for hemophiliacs.”
This is the suffering that Trump wants to inflict on Iran once again — in order to advance the interests of the US empire and its Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
And it isn’t the first time. Following the US-led war on Iraq in 1991, the United Nations placed the strictest regime of sanctions yet known on Iraq. A 1999 United Nations report concluded that up to 576,000 Iraqi children died as a result of the sanctions regime — upheld under Democrat Bill Clinton as enthusiastically as under Bush Sr.
For now, other signatories to the nuclear deal with Iran — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — have pledged to stick to the agreement. But this will set them on a collision course with the Trump administration.
European Union countries will have a choice to make. As the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China, the EU benefits from new connections to the Iranian market.
But Trump administration officials like National Security Advisor John Bolton are publicly threatening to impose sanctions on any businesses that do business with Iran, along with governments that back them. Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany, warned in a tweet: “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
The chilling effect of US sanctions was effective in isolating Iran from the global market before the Obama administration agreed to a deal, under which Iran accepted stringent inspections of its nuclear facilities in return for the lifting of most of the sanctions.
Even after the agreement, some international corporations hesitated to establish ties with Iran. Now, businesses will have to decide whether to risk running afoul of the US, which could mean losing access to American markets or other penalties.
The US has imposed sanctions on Iran on and off since 1979, the year that a popular revolution toppled the US-backed Shah. Though working class forces central to the revolution were sidelined afterward, the rise of a conservative clerical regime, hostile to the West and Israel, threatened US hegemony in the Middle East.
The US has unilaterally froze assets and imposed trade embargoes on Iranian goods for decades.
Washington demanded compliance from its allies — yet the US government itself broke its own arms embargo in the 1980s when the Reagan administration covertly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the right-wing contras fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
In the 1990s, the US expanded economic sanctions to firms doing business with Iran, further isolating the country. The European Union responded by arguing to the World Trade Organization that US sanctions violated international law. This led the US to agree not to enforce part of the sanctions.
Nevertheless, the general message conveyed to international corporations remained the same: If you do business with Iran, you won’t be doing business with the US
For years, the sanctions have long been bound up with Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has defended its right to pursue a program for the production of electricity, which is within its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which, by the way, Israel never signed).
Even the US National Intelligence Estimate conducted during the last year of the Bush administration concluded that Iran had ended its military program in 2003, and would be unlikely to develop a nuclear weapon for many years.
But the US and its allies continued to apply pressure. In 2006, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions following Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment programs. The Obama administration and the European Union placed an embargo Iran oil imports in 2012.
The threat and enforcement of sanctions pushed Iran to the negotiating table. With the 2015 agreement, Iran capitulated to demands for a reduction in its uranium stockpile and a pause on developing alleged weapons infrastructure, in exchange for the loosening of sanctions and strict monitoring of Iranian facilities.
Trump claims that the nuclear agreement is “the worst deal ever.” But in reality, it achieved a strict system of monitoring that has uncovered no signs of any attempt at military activity — while reserving for the US the right to impose sanctions and even take military action at will, as Obama always insisted.
The deal had a positive effect on Iran’s economy, resulting in a doubling of oil exports and job creation. But even so, Iran remained less than fully integrated into the world economy. Major European banks were hesitant to expand into Iran, worried about the US changing course.
And now it has.
Iran’s ruling class is practiced at using the US-directed sanctions regime to deflect attention from austerity measures imposed in its own interests.
Prior to the 2015 nuclear deal, the government often pointed to US and EU sanctions as the reason for lack of money for social spending. Predictably, a sophisticated black market formed, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard controlling many of the smuggling routes, increasing the power of the regime.
Iranian workers recognize that the conservative hierarchy pursues policies that benefit themselves, above all else. Insurrectionary protests at the turn of the year, and more recently a wave of strikes, have asked why the money to fund Iran’s intervention in Syria and its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, shouldn’t be used in Iran itself.
But since Trump’s decision, the momentum has been with Iranian conservatives. For them, the US is a scapegoat for the economic woes plaguing Iran that the regime itself bears responsibility for.
None of this is to minimize US responsibility for the suffering in Iran — which will only become greater in a new era of sanctions.
So far, the other countries that are signers of the nuclear deal are still standing behind the agreement. A week ago, the European Union announced a plan to make direct oil payments to Iran to dodge US sanctions.
But the US government has other plans. And with fanatics like Bolton and Trump himself calling the shots, the likelihood of greater misery inflicted on the Iranian people — and even a regional war stoked by the US — has grown, and shows no signs of receding.
Alan Maass contributed to this article.