During this season of presidential debates, I can’t help but notice how many questions are left unasked, or how many questions that are asked already assume the range of acceptable responses. Our foreign policy toward Iran is one of the most glaring in this aspect and exposes our utter lack of concern for the humanity of the Iranian people.
The stated fear is of an Iran with nuclear weapon capabilities. This fear has been reiterated for years and years, although there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support it. Iran’s leadership has repeatedly stated that they are pursuing nuclear technologies for peaceful ends. The international community has reason to doubt their intentions, but the UN International Atomic Energy Agency and others have yet to see any concrete evidence to the contrary. While Benjamin Netanyahu is displaying cartoon bombs in front of the U.N. General Assembly, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, has stated that Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile.” No one can rule out the possibility that Iran may at some point in the future change its mind, but if there’s no evidence, it is hard to justify a policy that causes so much harm to civilians in order to pressure a state away from a potential situation.
The fear of Iran’s nuclear capabilities isn’t that they’ll haphazardly use them. Both American and Israeli intelligence consider Iran a rational actor in the international sphere. Countries develop nuclear weapons as deterrence. The concern isn’t that Iran will “wipe Israel off the map” with a nuclear warhead, but that they’ll more aggressively pursue their policies and gain greater influence in the region knowing that an attack against them is less likely if they are a nuclear power. The concern isn’t a commitment to nuclear disarmament (Israel, along with India and Pakistan, are non-signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty) and it is not a concern for the Iranian people’s access to a free and democratic state; the concern is over Iran being a stronger regional player that can threaten the United States’ economic (e.g., access to natural resources) and political interests.
But what are these sanctions actually accomplishing? According to Rep. Brad Sherman of California, “The goal of the bill is to drive Iran’s economy into a crisis and force its leaders to the negotiating table.” It’s a strategy that’s been used on regimes in the past in order to pressure them away from unsavory policies and practices, to varying success. Some have argued that sanctions pressured apartheid South Africa to finally hold democratic elections. Sanctions on Iraq during the ’90s did little to nothing to harm Saddam Hussein’s regime but instead, as stated by writer Chuck Sudetic, “killed more civilians than all the chemical, biological or nuclear weapons used in human history.” When sanctions weren’t enough, the United States rushed into a baseless and expensive war that we are still paying the price for in dollars and international standing. Iraqi civilians are paying for it in blood.
Sanctions are already hitting Iran’s economy hard. Iran’s rial has lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year alone. Prices for staples like milk and bread have increased dramatically. Tens of thousands of Iranian children suffer as medicine shortages threaten their survival. Though the poor and middle class of Iran are struggling, those in power are largely unaffected by the sanctions. The suffering of the Iranian civilian population is so great that Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, tweeted that he was “beginning to wonder if limited airstrikes on Iran may actually be the more morally sound course of action.”
Sanctions against Iran are not only unethical but also ineffective in pursuing the stated goals. The working class, who are struggling to make ends meet, aren’t joining democracy movements in protest of the regime but are more willing to rely on it as external forces threaten their well being. For this reason, leaders of Iran’s Green Movement and Iranian human rights groups have come out against sanctions.
If anything, sanctions and increased talk of military action is only hurtling Iran, and the rest of the world, toward the proverbial red line and ensures further instability and insecurity in the region. U.S. actions against Iran only increase anti-American sentiment in the region and validate the perception of the U.S. as an aggressor. If we wonder why the “Muslim world” is so mad at us, we only have to look at the continued suffering of civilian populations as we dehumanize and inflict suffering through sanctions, military interventions, drone strikes and continued support of corrupt regimes as long as they are in line with our interests.
We should have no illusion that the United States is on any kind of moral high ground when it comes to foreign policy. As Glenn Greenwald asks in a recent Guardian column, “If ‘terrorism’ means the use of violence aimed at civilians in order to induce political change from their government, what is it called when intense economic suffering is imposed on a civilian population in order to induce political change from their government? Can those two tactics be morally distinguished?”
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Ahmad on Twitter @AhmadJitan.