The past month has seen a wave of protests in various Iranian cities following the death of Mahsa Amini following her arrest by vice police. These escalated into violence, causing tens to hundreds of deaths (depending on the source) with conflicting reports of whether the protesters were armed as well as the degree of state violence employed – all complicated by cutting off Internet access. In response, many Western states, including the United States and Canada, expressed support for the protests, as well as condemnation of the Iranian government.
The method of choice employed by these States has always been and remains punishment. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has called the current situation a “black and white problem” that should be “obvious” to deal with (via crushing sanctions, naturally) – and the United States is ready to deliver. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has denounced Iran’s violation of the human rights to freedom of expression and assembly as his government rolls out new sanctions against Iranian state officials. This included the reaffirmation of sanctions against Iran’s main economic sectors (mainly oil and finance). As he denounced the “brutal regime”, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau announced a wave of sanctions with “the most powerful tools at our disposal”. This included banning 10,000 IRGC members, as well as investing US$55 million in enforcing previous sanctions (economic, technological and military) in place. These decisions are widely popular among Canadians, and a rally in support of the protests sweeping Iran brought together fifty thousand participants in Toronto, the second largest Iranian diaspora in the world. Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesman for a group of Canadian families affected by the PS752 disaster, cited economic hardship resulting from the pandemic as a factor in accelerating dissenting sentiment among Iranians. This statement hints at a deeper issue: the effect that sweeping sanctions have actually had on Iranians.
As Gissou Nia, director of the strategic litigation project at the Atlantic Council, argues, the sanctions have had a deeply damaging impact on the Iranian people. Most notably, the general halt in economic development resulting from being the second most sanctioned country in the world is evident. Notably, Iran reports hundreds of deaths each year due to the inability to access or afford foreign drugs, as Western pharmaceutical companies are overly concerned about market volatility resulting from possible new sanctions. The sanctions even had particular effects on the ability of protesters to organise. Being banned from the internet by the West means that dissidents must rely on state-provided services, which can be blocked and searched at the state’s discretion. Also, being blocked from the SWIFT exchange system means they can’t pay for western technology to use the internet independently (with VPNs, for example).
The justifications for a maximum pressure strategy are obvious: brazen state-sponsored gender-based violence is as unpopular as it is inhumane. But sanctions have less in common with liberal solidarity and more in common with siege starvation tactics as old as war. It is this author’s belief that economically strangling a nation is neither politically productive nor morally justifiable. It relies on a strategy of collective punishment — the idea that citizens are responsible for the acts of their state — all the more execrable when the punishment is inflicted in answer to the suffering of Iranian citizens. One must assume, as with North Korea and Russia, that the goal is to create economic suffering so severe that internal dissent becomes inevitable. But – as these countries show – it not only causes economic and technological suffering, it also fails to produce results: the two governments only become more popular as their exhortations against the West’s economic violence are justified. .
If the West seeks to change Iran, it will have more luck employing a strategy of proximity rather than distance. The creation of observation bodies in the country and a system to evade the population from sanctions would better serve all parties. The recent exemption from internet sanctions by the US Treasury Department is cause for hope, as is Biden’s aim to return to Obama’s JCPoA. Ideally, the future of relations between Iran and the West lies in cooperation, not alienation.