Sanctions Amount to Collective Punishment Against the Iranian Population

Janine Jackson interviewed Sina Toosi about the Trump administration’s anti-Iran campaign for the April 26, 2019, episode of “CounterSpin.” This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: An April 22 New York Times story began:

The Trump administration is poised to end a program that has allowed five large nations, including China and India, to buy Iranian oil despite American sanctions, two senior American officials said on Sunday, a decision that is intended to squeeze Tehran’s government, but could lead to higher oil and gasoline prices.

The story stated clearly that:

The move to choke off all exports of Iranian oil is part of an increasingly aggressive pressure campaign by the Trump administration to starve Iran of revenue, with the goals of forcing political change among its ruling clerics and getting it to rein in its military actions across the Middle East.

And it continued, “But the decision also risks increasing frictions with other nations, including some major American allies, and hindering other policy priorities.”

The next day’s Times continued the theme, with a piece beginning:

In tightening sanctions on Iran, the Trump administration moved on Monday to isolate Tehran economically, and undercut its power across the Middle East. But the clampdown has complicated relations with China at a particularly sensitive moment.

You get the idea. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, aimed nakedly at strangling the country’s economy in order to force it to change its government to one compliant with US demands, is not itself problematic, but it might have some negative ancillary impacts.

It’s hard to maintain such a frame if you consider the lives of ordinary Iranians, which these articles do not. Here to shed a different light on the state of US policy toward Iran is Sina Toossi, research associate at the National Iranian American Council. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sina Toossi.

Sina Toossi: Hey, thanks for having me on. It’s good to be here.

Last November, the US demanded that everyone in the world stop importing Iranian oil, or else face sanctions from the United States. Waivers were granted to a handful of countries, including Iran’s biggest customers, China and India. And [as of] May 2, those waivers [have] ended. This is just part of this strategy of sanctions that’s called “maximum pressure.” What should we know, first of all, about the impact of this White House campaign, including the likely impact of this latest move, on regular Iranian people?

The so-called “maximum pressure campaign” that the Trump administration is pursuing against Iran is very unprecedented in scope. This aim to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, and now terminating these oil waivers for these five countries that were still importing Iranian oil, this is something the US has never tried to attempt before. It does amount to a full-on oil embargo of Iran’s oil exports, and Iran, you know, oil is the lifeblood of its economy; it accounts for something around 30 to 40 percent of its government budget.

And right now we’re seeing, coupled with the Trump administration’s broader sanctions on Iran, these nuclear sanctions that they reimposed after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year, all foreign investment has left the country; Iran’s trade with much of the world has been cut off. And this has really debilitated the Iranian economy.

And first and foremost, it’s ordinary Iranians who are paying the price. These sanctions are amounting to collective punishment against the entire Iranian population. Right now we’re seeing that the Iranian middle class is becoming impoverished, space for Iranian civil society is diminishing, the cost of everyday goods is going up, the cost of living is increasing, there’s been inflation, the currency has devalued.

So right now it’s causing immense economic hardship in Iran. And, right now, we see that the Trump administration and Secretary of State Pompeo, they often frame their rhetoric towards Iran about helping the Iranian people, and they have this idea that they promote, that these policies help the Iranian people, or they support the Iranian people against their authoritarian governments. When in reality, it’s crippling the space needed for peaceful democratic change in Iran, by impoverishing the middle class, which is the vehicle for economic and political development. It’s only creating a destructive situation inside the country.

Well, and then what should we know about the impact of these sanctions on the various factions of government within Iran?

Right now, we see that these factions and entities, like the Revolutionary Guard, they are well-connected, and they have the means to evade sanctions.

And the track record of sanctions, US sanctions policy in other countries, always showed that in these authoritarian countries, the ruling elites themselves suffered the least from sanctions. They managed to consolidate resources around them, and it’s the ordinary people who are hurt.

And right now in Iran, we are seeing that the Trump administration’s Iran policy is overall empowering the most hardline factions in Iran, the most reactionary elements, that opposed the nuclear negotiations that led to the nuclear deal, that oppose these more moderate reformist rivals that they have within the country, represented by President Rouhani and foreign minister Zariff, and they were always opposed to the nuclear negotiations. These forces have been empowered.

And these sanctions, the Revolutionary Guard is capable of evading these sanctions, and it’s only going to increase its tentacles all around the Iranian economy, and increase its influence throughout the country, and other economic actors within the country are going to be ever-more dependent on the Revolutionary Guard.

So it’s really entrenching them, as opposed to a policy that would have engaged Iran economically—what we had after the nuclear deal with Obama, that Iran was integrating with the world economically, and Iran’s private sector was booming, unemployment was decreasing. And the Revolutionary Guard and these hardliners were very upset with that situation after the nuclear deal.

It’s hard to think how Trump and Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, another architect of this “maximum pressure” policy, how they think Iran will respond to this “bend the knee” demand. In a press meeting that Axios reported, Pompeo said that the administration is “careful not to use the language of regime change,” and insisted that the US has no plans to intervene militarily in Iran. But all of this, along with the Revolutionary Guard being designated a foreign terrorist organization—another unprecedented move—all of this seems like an amp up to war, doesn’t it?

Yes. And I would just add that the administration’s Iran policy is really being driven by John Bolton and the National Security Council, not as much even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who himself is an ardent Iran hawk. But we see that even in this issue with the oil waivers, according to reporting, the State Department was actually hesitant, and opposed to terminating these oil waivers, but Bolton pushed for it, and Bolton ultimately won that debate within the administration. And Bolton is someone who has a track record of supporting military strikes against Iran.

And right now, this administration’s policy is really to bait Iran to leave the nuclear deal, and then have this escalation cycle ensue. Their idea is that then the Europeans would come on board with additional sanctions on Iran.

And for Bolton and them, if they get Iran to leave the nuclear deal, they would have a pretext to potentially launch military strikes, to escalate even more. So this dangerous escalation cycle will ensue if Iran does leave the nuclear deal. And right now, Iran has very, very little benefit from staying in the nuclear deal. Obviously, with all the sanctions, and the nuclear sanctions that got reimposed, Iran lost all the economic benefits that the deal gave it.

And these additional sanctions, these oil waivers being terminated, designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, these are, in some cases, redundant sanctions that foreclose the potential for future diplomacy, and they’re additional sanctions that are harming Iran in other ways.

So this all incentivizes Iran to pursue a tit-for-tat strategy, and to escalate. And it’s a very dangerous situation, and people like John Bolton, National Security Council, every piece of evidence suggests that they want more escalation.

There are historical echoes, of course, as well. And the US-backed British blockade was what went right before the 1953 coup—US media don’t talk about that much, but Iran hasn’t forgotten it.

Right, and that’s the closest historical parallel to the Trump administration’s Iran policy right now, is the 1953 UK/US coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. And during that time, Mosaddegh had nationalized the Iranian oil industry, and the British blockaded Iran’s oil exports, and the US supported that. So right now we’re seeing a similar policy being pursued; there’s an oil blockade, a regime change agenda. So it’s very analogous.

And yet, there’s some sense, and you pointed to it, even within the US government, and certainly overseas, that not everybody is on board with this. Not everyone thinks this is smart or effective or safe, even labeling the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. There’s a lot of potential danger that lots of folks actually see. They’re just kind of being talked over, is that it?

Absolutely. The administration is very isolated in its Iran policy in the world stage. Obviously, the rest of the powers that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal—which is the European Union, Germany, France, the UK, Russia and China as well—they’re all still in the deal. They support preserving the deal. Iran is obviously still in the deal. Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement has been confirmed in every report by the International Atomic Energy Agency since the report was implemented in 2016. The US intelligence committee also confirms Iran’s continued adherence to the nuclear deal.

And the Europeans and other powers are all finding ways to try to sidestep these US sanctions, and preserve the nuclear deal and kind of wait out the Trump administration.

So we’ve seen the Europeans—it’s very unprecedented, this fissure that has emerged over Iran policy, among all the other factors that have increased the transatlantic divide under Trump—the Europeans have devised right now this financial mechanism to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran. And the idea is that eventually, with facilitated Iranian oil imports, this mechanism would circumvent the US financial system, and other banks that would be vulnerable to American sanctions. So it’s really, overall, this Iran policy, also diminishing US economic and financial power, by encouraging countries to find ways to sidestep sanctions, and develop these new institutions and mechanisms.

Let me, finally, read you this quote from The Washington Post; they say that Pompeo

estimated that US sanctions have cost around $10 billion so far. “The regime would have used that money to support terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and continue with its missile development in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” Pompeo told reporters, “and it would have perpetuated a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”

And the story doesn’t bat an eye. It gives readers no indication of any hypocrisy contained in those claims.

And I’ve said many times that acceptance of US exceptionalism, and the rights of empire, are the price of admission to elite media’s foreign policy conversation. But it makes things like this campaign on Iran very hard to understand, I think, even if a story is factually accurate. What would you like to see from news media, going forward, in terms of covering Iran and US/Iran relations?

The coverage overall, unfortunately, has been biased for years, and continues to be grossly biased. And this only encourages bad policies, when we have a false understanding of these countries, these events, and there’s these certain narratives that are inaccurate. And they’re really ultimately in the service of these hawkish, aggressive policies that are self-defeating, ultimately, for the US; it gets us in these wars and quagmires abroad.

Right now, we see with the administration’s Iran policy, and some things like these quotes by Brian Hook [in the piece] that you just read, the administration’s Iran policy, despite all these sanctions, it has not changed Iran’s regional policy. So it’s been a failure in that regard. They say the goals, these 12 demands they have of Iran—changing regional policy, changing certain stuff — it’s failed to meet all of those demands.

We need to have a nuanced discussion about why Iran has these national security policies in the region. Who are these different groups? Are they just reflexively Iranian proxies, Iran pulls their strings, whether that be Houthis, or groups in Lebanon or Iraq? Or are these groups, do they have their own supporters and constituencies within these countries that might be independent of Iran? Or if the Islamic Republic, the government in Iran, were to collapse tomorrow, would these groups suddenly disappear or not? There’s a gap regarding the more nuanced explanation that we need of the Middle East that would help us get better policies. But unfortunately, that’s lacking.

We’ve been speaking with Sina Toossi, research associate at the National Iranian American Council; they’re online at NIAcouncil.org. Sina Toossi, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks for having me.