The Counterproductive Effects of Leveling Sanctions on Iran

An Iranian man shops at a supermarket in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Iran's national currency lost nearly 40 perc
An Iranian man shops at a supermarket in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Iran's national currency lost nearly 40 percent of its value in 2012. Each U.S. dollar was traded at about 10,000 rials as recently as early 2011. Iranian authorities have accused the West of waging an "economic war." The country is living under stepped up Western sanctions that also include banking restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for Iran's Asian customers to pay for oil deliveries. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama boasted that the U.S.-sponsored economic sanctions against Iran were "crippling the economy." He also stated, "their economy is in shambles." Ironically, Mitt Romney shares this view about the efficacy of sanctions. This is why the subject of sanctions was a virtual non-issue during the recent presidential campaign.

There appears to be an inherent bipartisan belief in the U.S. that sanctions should be employed to destabilize the Iranian regime, forcing the Iranians to acquiesce to the demands of the U.S and its allies, and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its investigation of its alleged nuclear program. There is a corresponding bipartisan belief on the part of U.S. government officials that Iranian citizens will become so inflamed by the effects of the sanctions that they will rise up and topple their government.

The regime in power rarely feels the effects of sanctions. Instead, it is the average citizen who bears the burden of sanctions. Ironically, the Iranian regime uses the sanctions as a scapegoat, blaming the United States Government for their country's economic woes.

U.S.-supported sanctions are a major factor contributing to the hyperinflation plaguing Iran. In fact, the Iranian currency, called the rial, is becoming increasingly worthless. It has dropped 80 percent in just the past year. This is not an abstraction. It has real-world implications for the Iranian people.

This debasing of their currency is making it hard for Iranians to procure medicine from overseas. The Associated Press recently reported that the price of an imported wheelchair has increased ten-fold in just a one year period. The price for a cancer patient to receive chemotherapy has nearly tripled, and filters for kidney dialysis are up by 325 percent.

The failure of economic sanctions is clearly illustrated by the tragic failure of the U.S.-sponsored sanctions leveled on Iraq between the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003. The intent of the sanctions was to enfeeble the regime and its leader, President Saddam Hussein. However, throughout the 12-year period when sanctions were in effect, Hussein enjoyed life to the fullest in his extravagant palaces and aboard his 269-foot yacht. Sadly, the only major ill effect caused by the sanctions was a precipitous drop in the standard of living for the Iraqi people.

The U.S.-sponsored sanctions dramatically debilitated Iraq's economy. UNICEF, for example, contends that the sanctions led to the deaths of over a million Iraqis, including more than a half million children due to malnutrition, lack of medical supplies and diseases caused by the lack of clean water. In 1998, Denis Halliday, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, resigned in protest, complaining: "I don't want to administer a program that satisfies the definition of genocide." Former House Democratic Minority Whip David Bonier (D-MI) called the sanctions on Iraq: "infanticide masquerading as policy."

Osama bin Laden opportunistically used the suffering of the Iraqi people in his FATWA to justify the indiscriminate killing of Americans: "What is the evidence against the people of Iraq to warrant their blockade and being killed in a way that is unprecedented in history?"

Both Hussein and bin Laden used the effects of the sanctions to advance their own political agendas. Hussein used them as a foil to stay in power, blaming the sanctions for the country's economic predicament. Bin Laden used the sanctions as a recruiting magnet for al Qaeda.

We face the same risk today in Iran as we faced in Iraq. The Iranian regime has a convenient scapegoat. They can point to the effects of the sanctions as the reason for their nation's economic morass. The sanctions also play into the master narrative of al Qaeda and their coefficients that the U.S. is at war with Muslims.

In spite of the sanctions, the Iranian people are not intrinsically hostile toward the American people, but to the foreign policy of the U.S. government. In fact, after the September 11th hijackings, many Iranians participated in vigils in support of the victims.

U.S. intervention in Iran's affairs reached their high-watermark in 1953 when the U.S. and Great Brittan sponsored a coup d'état to oust Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq because he nationalized the oil fields. The coup restored Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, the "Shah of Iran," to supremacy. Unfortunately, under the Shah's iron-fisted rule, secret police tortured and killed political opponents, causing many Iranians to become hostile toward their own government.

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Reagan administration delisted Saddam Hussein as a state sponsor of terror so that the U.S. could send military and economic aid to Iraq. In taking this position, the U.S. turned a blind eye toward the chemical weapons Iraq was using against the Iranians.

Amazingly, the Iranian people do not hold a collective grudge against the American people for its government's support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Why, then, alienate the Iranian citizenry by inflating their economy and making it difficult for the Iranian people to subsist?

The direct effect of sanctions on populations often flies under the radar screen, perhaps because it is less graphic than the immediate deaths caused by war. The result, however, is the same. This is why President Woodrow Wilson branded sanctions: "The Silent, Deadly remedy."

By using economic sanctions to attempt to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, the U.S. might actually be playing into the hands of both Iran and al Qaeda. By exacting collective punishment on the people of Iran, we fortify the argument made by the demagogues in the Islamic World that the U.S. is at war with Islam.