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.