This article appeared in Massachusetts Peace Action’s Fall 2018 newsletter
The Trump administration has launched a barrage of verbal attacks against Iran in recent weeks that seem to signal a willingness, even an eagerness, to go to war. The president used hysterical tweets to threaten Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” and John Bolton, his national security adviser, has vowed that if Iran “crosses” the US or its allies, “there will indeed be hell to pay.” This bellicose rhetoric, disturbingly similar to that leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, may be preparing the world and the US public for another war of aggression in the Middle East.
Last May, despite Iran’s internationally recognized compliance with the terms of the Iran nuclear accord—a hard-won compromise negotiated by the Obama administration that promised the lifting of sanctions in return for Iran’s verifiable suspension of its nuclear program—President Trump announced that he would scrap the deal and re-impose US sanctions. He demanded that all other countries and companies comply with US sanctions as well, or be banned from doing business in the US. While all the other signatories to the Iran nuclear deal (or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as it is formally known) objected to the US withdrawal and said they would continue to honor the agreement, it is unclear how effectively they will be able to do so.
The restoration of sanctions is occurring in stages. On August 7, Trump banned Iran’s purchasing of US currency and precious metals as well as airplane and auto parts. That action has already had a significant impact on the lives of ordinary Iranian citizens, as the price of cars, electronics and medications has at least doubled. A new set of US sanctions went into effect on Nov. 5, including restrictions on the sale of Iranian oil on the world market, transactions with Iranian banks, and operations of Iranian ports and shipping companies. These “extraterritorial” sanctions will be imposed not only on Iranian companies, but on any companies that do business with Iran. Oil exports make up 20 percent of Iran’s economy, and the Iranian currency, the rial, has already lost much of its purchasing power.
Sanctions are a blunt instrument meant to force the Iranian regime to accede to the demands of the US government. But as is so often the case, they fall most heavily on the people, especially the poorest and least powerful, and not on the government or the elite. During the decade of sanctions leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal, industrial production in Iran plummeted, massive layoffs and unemployment ensued, inflation soared, rents and food prices rose sharply, education and health care were hurt, and the people were subject to widespread hardship.
This time around, despite the claims of the Trump administration that the sanctions will not harm humanitarian aid, the UN’s International Court of Justice has ruled the sanctions both “illegal” and “cruel.” The most damaging effect of sanctions falls on Iran’s health care system. Reduced oil revenues and a declining economy force cuts in funding for national health programs. Those cuts, along with shipping and trade restrictions, lead to critical shortages (and very high prices) of medicines, medical supplies, and medical devices.
According to Jamal Abdi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, “The grievous harm sanctions cause the Iranian people cannot be overstated. As the economy and unemployment levels make daily life unbearable for millions of Iranians, families are choked off from life-saving medicines and starved of critical infrastructure.” Many would agree with Abdi’s conclusion that sanctions on Iran amount to “collective punishment” while the government remains immune to their impact.
The US has a long history of interference in Iran’s economic and political affairs. Seared into the memory of Iranians is the CIA’s role, along with British intelligence, in toppling Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953 after he nationalized Iran’s oil industry. Following Mossadegh’s removal, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was restored to power. For the next 26 years, he gave US companies unfettered access to Iran’s oil and relied upon the infamous secret police (SAVAK) to suppress opposition to his autocratic governance. Pent-up anger against both the Shah and the US helped spark the 1979 revolution, which resulted in the emergence of the Islamic Republic and the student takeover of the American embassy. The hostage crisis, in turn, led to the first American sanctions.
All this history must be kept in mind when attempting to understand the attitudes of Iranians toward the US. And yet, as Professor Val Moghadam of Northeastern University, noted at a MAPA rally in August: “Most Iranians inside and outside the country want normalized relations with the US, an end to sanctions, regular trade, and civil society relations.”
Hostility to Iran is almost an axiom in Washington; it pervades the national security establishment, Congress, and the media. Compare the response to Trump and Bolton’s rush to cancel the Iran nuclear deal and impose new, harsh sanctions on Iran with the response to the Yemen war and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Media denunciations of Saudi human rights violations are always coupled with reminders of the long US/Saudi alliance and the need to confront Iran for its supposed misdeeds. In fact, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran, that is by far the greatest supporter and instigator of terrorism and civil war across the Middle East.
Trump and Bolton have given ample indication they want regime change in Iran. But scrapping the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions actually strengthens the hand of the conservative clerics and weakens the pro-democracy forces in Iran, while causing untold suffering for the Iranian people. Peace advocates in the US must demand that the President revive the nuclear agreement, end sanctions, engage in talks with Iran and give peace a chance!
—George Capaccio is a writer, performer, and activist living in Arlington who has travelled to Iraq repeatedly and studied the impact of sanctions on that country.