Categorized | Iran, Middle East, US, World

The Obsolescence of Sanctions against Iran

Image courtesy of Stephen D. Melkisethian

The deadly impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Iran has given a new focus to the ongoing debate about the purpose, effectiveness and relevance of US sanctions imposed on the country. Many leaders, political figures, and organisations have questioned the continuance of these sanctions. These include the UN Secretary General, the UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights and Food, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Pope Francis, several US senators and Congressional representatives, MEPs, many former leaders and diplomats from the US and the EU, as well as numerous NGOs. This criticism of the devastating effects of US sanctions on Iran is not new. However, the impact of Covid-19 has thrown the ethical and humanitarian implications of sanctions into the sharpest relief imaginable.

Humanitarian arguments against sanctions

The pandemic is a truly global shock whose impact is being likened to world wars or catastrophic natural disasters. Even the most advanced economies are struggling to provide their national health services with the personnel and equipment required to contain the pandemic and minimize loss of life. Countries that have the capacity to do so are implementing relief and stimulus packages worth trillions of dollars to ease the burden being borne by communities. Iran remains one of the worst-affected countries in the Middle East. Yet, within the confines of tight sanctions controls, efforts at medical and economic relief provision in Iran are being severely hampered.

As the current sanctions imposed on Iran are not “targeted,” their severity is unparalleled. They are indiscriminately enforced to exert “maximum pressure” on the general population in a highly-punitive manner, constituting a labyrinth of obstacles that prohibit and restrict every level of trade, commerce and economic activity. Moreover, given the financial dominance of the US and the harsh economic penalties imposed, few countries or companies have the will or courage to circumvent those sanctions.

Undermining the principles of legitimacy and multilateralism

In light of the overwhelmingly high cost of the sanctions for the people of Iran, it is imperative to review and reassess their efficacy. The sanctions imposed by the US in 2018 in the aftermath of the country’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal were enforced despite the continued commitment of the other signatories to the deal, thereby torpedoing a multilaterally-negotiated peace agreement that was strongly supported by the international community. This unilateral withdrawal and the resulting imposition of the most crippling sanctions in living memory marked a radical departure from the gold standard principles of effective sanctions – the principles of legitimacy and multilateralism.

Exhaustion of sanctions as a tool of influence

The “maximum pressure” approach has evidently run out of steam. Based as it is on a flawed assumption that it would eventually translate into maximum capitulation, it ignores the impact of the politics and dynamics of resistance in Iran. In fact, thus far, the sanctions have actually been counterproductive and there is no evidence to suggest that they will move the Iranian authorities any closer towards the positions demanded by the US.

Looking back over the Iranian response in the last two years, what is striking is its steadfastness and consistency despite extremely challenging internal and external factors. This response is one that has been well honed by the decades-long development of political coping mechanisms and socio-economic resilience in response to American threats and aggression. If the historical trajectory of domination-resistance has taught us anything, it seems that no matter how high the Trump administration raises the level of suffering, the pain threshold of countries living under sanctions seems to rise by equal measure. Iranians have seemingly developed a collective psychological immunity from any further sanctions.

Might it be the case, then, that the over-use and misuse of sanctions means that the Trump Administration has lost any influence that it might have had in another time and another context? Are we witnessing the obsolescence of sanctions as a tool of influence?

In particular, Iran cannot find any evidence to support trust in the designs of the Trump administration. Even the most basic of cost-benefit analyses would conclude that attaching any credibility to the belief that Trump’s stated desire for a “better deal” is achievable is simply not worth the risk. Political leaders in the EU and most of the international community have also concluded as much and are expressing continued support for the original 2015 nuclear deal.

Under the current circumstances arising from the global vulnerability to Covid-19, the international community is in a position to speak a profound truth to power and disregard the US unilateral sanctions which are fundamental obstacles that undercut international solidarity and multilateralism. It is also time for the US administration to finally comprehend that massive punitive deprivation, bullying and vindictiveness are not viable policy goals. Its continued confusion of foreign policy ends with means has caused Iranian people to endure needless suffering without any consideration being given to consequences or effects.

The futility of sanctions

If global cooperation is the only answer to the Covid-19 crisis, then sanctions are the antithesis to any lasting solution. Inter-connected global efforts are essential to overcome the pandemic. Consequently, it is in the enlightened self-interest of every rational state actor to seek an end to these sanctions. In recognition of this requirement for a truly global response, we will need to develop new ways of thinking to adapt to a new world reordering that will emerge from the current pandemic.

The weaponization of sanctions and politicization of medical and economic issues will not see the world through this current crisis and the post Covid-19 environment. It is difficult to imagine any role for negative-sum coercive measures, such as punitive sanctions, in a world which is united in its need to renew its full socio-economic capacities. Surely, then, it will be this new global imperative which will render the obsolescence of sanctions final and complete. This will herald in an age in which Iran (like other countries) will be able to focus on solving the challenges presented by Covid-19.

Image courtesy of Stephen D. Melkisethian. [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

Masoud Eslami

About Masoud Eslami

Dr Masoud Eslami has been the Iranian Ambassador to Ireland since 2018. He has also been an advisor to Ministers of Foreign Affairs on issues of international law and relations for many years. He was a Professor of International Law and International Relations at the Graduate School of International Relations in Tehran and he also served as Dean of the School of International Relations and Diplomatic Academy of Iran for five years. He received M.A.L.D. and Ph.D. degrees in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He also holds an LL.M. degree from Yale University Law School and a Master’s degree in political science and Islamic studies from Imam Sadegh University in Tehran.

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