“When the United Nations or the United States imposes sanctions against a regime […] it does not intend to create unnecessary hardships for innocent people,” former Secretary of State and current Georgetown University professor Madeleine Albright wrote in a 2000 paper about economic sanctions. “Good intentions, however, do not automatically translate into good results.”
Sanctions often lead to a misalignment of intentions and results. In the case of Iran, humanitarian sanctions disproportionately hurt innocent Iranian citizens, who largely make up the moderate base opposing the Iranian government.
As November approaches, the administration of President Donald Trump should reconsider its stances on sanctions on humanitarian goods such as food, medicine and aviation equipment against Iran.
On July 14, 2015, Iran, the P5-plus-1 nations — China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Germany — and the European Union reached an agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran deal. The deal lifts existing economic sanctions while opening up Iran’s nuclear program to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Counter to Trump’s criticisms of the JCPOA, the deal successfully curbed Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. Based on the most recent IAEA report released in August, Iran has complied with verification standards of the deal.
On May 8, 2018 — three years after agreeing to it — the United States withdrew from the Iran deal. The Trump administration cited the deal’s ineffectiveness in bringing peace and stability.
As replacements for the deal, the Trump administration worked with regional allies to contain Iran both economically and militarily. The administration also began implementing two rounds of sanctions on Iran’s purchase of U.S. dollar banknotes, transactions of petroleum and the energy sector. In August this year, the United States reinstated the first round of sanctions to target Iran’s gold trade and automotive sector. The second round of sanctions is scheduled to go into effect in November.
Humanitarian sanctions represent a dilemma in U.S. foreign policy: Though the United States intends to pressure Iran’s political leaders to contain Iran’s military activities, humanitarian sanctions harm the basic welfare of innocent middle-class Iranians. These people are the backbone of the national protests in late 2017 and early 2018 that opposed government corruption and Iran’s military overtures. This group represents the exact demographic the United States should stand by.
Sanctions should be an alternative to war, not a form of war. Exerting pressure on the Iranian regime cannot be justified by inflicting harm on Iranian people. The United States loses its moral legitimacy when it imposes humanitarian sanctions on Iran.
If the United States continues to enact sanctions in November, the vicious cycle of the Iranian economy in 2012 could reappear. From 2010 to 2015, sanctions on banks prevented Iranians from buying international services. Iranians were also unable to access basic life-saving drugs and medicines, and the country confronted an increase in energy costs, unemployment spikes and shortage of basic necessities.
These issues could re-emerge in a worse form as sanctions set in this year. The Iranian currency, under the United States’ first round of sanctions in August, quickly plunged this summer. From May to October of this year, the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Iranian rial, based on statistics from Trading Economics, lurched from around 37,830 rial per $1 to 42,000. The currency’s free fall will likely only exacerbate the ordinary citizen’s suffering.
In fact, humanitarian sanctions exacerbate economic inequality — already a serious problem in Iran. As of 2016, the top 10 percent of Iran controlled 48.5 percent of pre-tax national income, while the bottom 50 percent only saw 16.8 percent of the total national income, based on the World Inequality Database. The rich upper class has access to the international market through foreign investments, dual citizenship and green cards. Humanitarian sanctions produce no harm to this privileged group while disproportionately hurting the middle class and the lower class.
Sanctions also create a chilling factor that hinders businesses’ willingness to even legally trade with Iran. Though Iranian-Americans have legal protection to transfer funds to people inside Iran, few banks want to take on risks to complete the wire transfer.
On May 8, 2018, the National Iranian American Council, an NGO dedicated to promoting understanding between the United States and Iran, accused Bank of America of discrimination against customers of Iranian descent. Specifically, the NIAC cited incidents when customers faced frozen accounts and asset withdrawal. Clearly, sanctions have huge spillover effects and an inherent humanitarian cost on civil rights and protections.
“We stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people,” Trump said in an October 2017 address. “The citizens of Iran have paid a heavy price for the violence and extremism of their leaders.”
Now is the time for the United States to demonstrate this solidarity.
Victoria Liu is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Globetrotting From D.C. appears online every Monday.