Misdirected sanctions on Iran

President Obama has touted his administration’s efforts to impose ‘crippling’ sanctions on Iran. Congress has pressed for even stronger measures, and has included additional sanctions against Iran’s shipping industry in this year’s Defense Authorization Act. Mark Wallace of United Against Nuclear Iran wants to go further and has called for a “total economic blockade.” Lost in the frenzy to impose punishments on Iran is a consideration of how these measures are hurting ordinary people and undermining the presumed purposes of U.S. policy.


The increasingly draconian sanctions on Iran are supposedly directed at government leaders, but the greatest impacts are being felt by civilians. Especially harmful are the restrictions on Iran’s banking sector, which have significantly curtailed the country’s ability to finance imports. Among other consequences, these measures are making it very difficult to purchase advanced medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. U.S. newspapers report that chemotherapy drugs are becoming hard to obtain and increasingly unavailable. Medicines for people suffering from AIDS, hemophilia and other acute conditions are also in short supply, according to Al Jazeera.


Broad trade sanctions are, in effect, a form of collective punishment. They impose hardships on innocent people who have committed no offense and have no power over the religious clerics who decide their country’s nuclear policies.  Collective punishment is considered immoral in warfare and is specifically prohibited in the Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.


Broad trade sanctions are politically counterproductive. They undermine the moral legitimacy of nonproliferation efforts and weaken the prospects for democratic reform. They make life more difficult for reformers and human rights advocates in Iran, the very people Western governments claim to support. Many of the most courageous critics of the current regime, including Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and former opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossain Moussavi, have spoken out against further sanctions.


Instead of adopting ever more severe unilateral trade measures, the United States should focus on implementing the targeted sanctions adopted by the UN. These measures freeze the financial assets and ban the travel of approximately 100 Iranian officials and entities that are directly responsible for the country’s nuclear program. They have the unanimous support of the Security Council, including China and Russia. The political support for these targeted sanctions could erode, however, if the humanitarian costs of unilateral sanctions continue to mount. The social harm caused by trade sanctions undermines the prospects for nonproliferation and human rights progress in Iran.

Talking with the Taliban

According to Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, the High Peace Council in Afghanistan is developing an ambitious plan of direct talks with the Taliban that could cede to them political control of their southern and eastern strongholds. The plan calls for a ceasefire and negotiations between insurgents and the Afghan government next year. The government of Pakistan is helping to spearhead the initiative and select the leaders of the Taliban and other rebel groups who would take part in the negotiations.

The plan is contained in a Peace Council document, obtained by McClatchy, which states that by 2015, insurgent groups “will have given up armed opposition, transformed from military entities into political parties, and [will be] actively participating in the country’s political and constitutional processes, including national elections…. NATO/ISAF forces will have departed from Afghanistan, leaving the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) as the only legitimate armed forces delivering security and protection to the Afghan population.”

News of the peace blueprint combines with other recent developments: Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners, the beginning of talks between the Taliban and their historic enemies in the Northern Alliance, and indications that Obama administration may be lowering expectations for a U.S. military role beyond 2014. Together they suggest that a genuine peace process may be in the offing. Many of the essential ingredients are there—including power sharing between insurgents and the Afghan government.

Opponents of the war should support plans for negotiations and power sharing, but we should also insist on human rights guarantees, protection of women’s rights, and a greater role for Afghan civil society, including women. Political negotiations should be accompanied by an inclusive process of consultation and mobilization among Afghan civilians, so that the governance system in Afghanistan reflects the needs and interests of all elements of society, not just the men with guns.