The nuclear deal with Iran is a great achievement, but it can also become a great danger if the damage US sanctions have done to the Iranian pro-democracy movement becomes irreversible and if the model of sanctions are used in other cases without regards for its impact on human rights.
Crediting sanctions for resolving the nuclear impasse is not only incorrect, it may also promote the idea that this silent unconventional war will be received as a "good war" that in the long run might target other countries -- or even Iran once again -- for resolving similar global issues not necessarily related to their nuclear programs. Dialogue, diplomacy and the capacities of peace-seeking and pro-democracy elements had a much more crucial role to play in finalizing the recent deal, and, coincidentally, stand in stark contrast to the pathway to sanctions.
Consider the three following challenges with efficacy and morality of the sanctions approach.
First, the sanctions were unethical as they targeted the Iranian people and viewed them as a means for producing political outcomes.
The sanctions deliberately targeted ordinary people's livelihood so that they in turn would pressure the Iranian political establishment to change its policies vis-a-vis the demands of those who initiated the sanctions regime. This simplistic and unsophisticated approach does not withstand the mildest of ethical scrutiny, as it makes it permissive to utilize "others" as disposable instruments for materializing one's own goals. This is particularly true in the Iranian case since Iran is far from a democracy where people have the direct ability to impact security matters such as the nation's nuclear program.
Second, sanctions violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its general spirit by refusing to recognize the inherent dignity and equal rights of individual human beings, whereas these are the very concerns that the UDHR was grounded in. Sanctions were in violation of the egalitarian spirit of Human Rights declaration and according to its article 1 threatened the dignity and rights of Iranians. Also, simply because of their nationality and contrary to article 2, Iranians were discriminated against as a result of sanctions. Their right to life, liberty and security were targeted in violation of article 3. It is self-evident that the sanctions also undermined the right to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being," as enshrined by article 25. The sanctions had dire consequences for nearly every facet of the people's lives: their access to medical treatment for serious illnesses (e.g., cancer) was severely curtailed; Iran could no longer purchase much-needed parts for its aging fleet of passenger aircraft, resulting in numerous plane crashes and the death of innocent civilians on a regular basis.
In fact, sanctions proponent Brad Sherman specifically said that sanctions must hit the Iranian people in an op-ed: "Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that," he wrote.
Third, the argument that sanctions explain the nuclear deal completely disregards that it was the peaceful pro-democracy movement of the Iranian people and their vote during the 2013 presidential elections that created the main opening that led to the breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations.
While it is perfectly valid to scrutinize the sanctions from an ethical and human rights perspective alone, both arguments hinge on a very important presupposition: that the sanctions were indeed successful. However, in the interest of denying the proponents of sanctions the opportunity to make a case for sanctions against Iran or yet another country in the future, it is of crucial importance to dispel a widely accepted myth that the sanctions were the most important factor paving the way for negotiations. The path to peace, dialogue and openness to the rest of the world is one that was favored by the Iranian people long before the imposition of sanctions, as they consistently used each and every opportunity to advance the cause of democracy within Iran and peace with the rest of the world.
In 1997, the Iranian people gave their meaningful and staggering vote of confidence to Mohammad Khatami who overtly advocated a path of reform and a minimization of tensions in Iran's foreign relations and reelected him for another four-year term in office in 2001. And in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election had less to do with the populace's endorsement of his discourse and adventurism in foreign policy and more to do with his status as a virtual unknown and his ability to present himself as a symbol for change and an alternative to the status quo by resorting to populism.
Despite his declared victory during the widely contested 2009 elections, millions of voters, in particular middle-class voters, protested his reelection and would soon form the opposition Green Movement, whose leaders and supporters openly decried Ahmadinejad's bellicose foreign policy.
These protesters, and the renowned political figures that backed them, would form Hassan Rouhani's main base of support during the 2013 presidential elections. These voters called for a radical change in the confrontational and unpredictable foreign policy enacted during the eight-year presidency of Ahmadinejad.
In the past two decades, the majority of Iranian voters, in particular the middle class, have increasingly favored an easing of tensions in their country's foreign policy and more toleration in domestic policy. Despite this, the proponents of sanctions, knowingly or unknowingly, have waged war precisely on this sector of Iranian society and, in line with Ahmadinejad's policies, weakened them by harming the economy.
The sanctions most certainly slashed Iran's revenues. But the military and nuclear programs were furthest away from the sanctions' line of fire, even though according to John Kerry, a further intensification of the sanctions was not possible.
Let us not forget that while the sanctions were piling up, the number of centrifuges skyrocketed, just as Iran's most vulnerable citizens bore the full brunt of surging inflation, which at some point reached 44 percent.
If anything, it was the unabating clear-sightedness of Iran's reform-minded and peace-seeking camp that did not fall prey to the mistakes of policy-makers inside and outside the country, and fervently pursued its demands until the June 2013 elections. A pursuit that began long before the sanctions and had very little to do with the pressure exerted by the sanctions regime.
Supporters of the deal waste no time in praising the effectiveness of the sanctions. And yet it is the Iranian people and their relentless campaign to fight for their demands that finally opened the way for a deal.
Of course, none of this is to deny the important role played by anti-war forces whose will for peace was embodied by Barack Obama and John Kerry. In what was to a great extent a major stroke of luck, sanity reigned both in Tehran and Washington at the same time, and a weakened Iranian civil society could muster enough strength to redirect the country's overall trajectory towards peace and stability.