This article was first published on Open Democracy

With or without the US sanctions, the Iranian regime is neither capable nor interested in prioritizing the well-being of its citizens.

While the COVID-19 virus continues to prey on vulnerable lives in Iran and across the globe, the governments of the US and Iran have both turned the crisis into another episode of political rivalry and propaganda exchange between themselves, erasing the root causes of the country’s healthcare crisis and turning the lives of 80 million people into a bargaining chip for political and economic gains.

Why will lifting (or by-passing) the US economic sanctions alone not solve the country’s growing humanitarian crisis? And how are internal factors such as social movements or the country’s dysfunctional wealth and resources distribution systems equally important (if not more) for an effective solution to the growing humanitarian and environmental crisis?

I begin by debunking some of the most widespread myths promoted by both the Iranian and American states regarding the impact of the sanctions.

American lies: “we love the Iranian people”

Whether Republican or Democrat, Americans have always framed their wars and sanctions as inherently just and ultimately for the good of the people, and the consequent human cost as a negligible cost “worth paying”. An immoral but largely accepted logic which is an outcome of an American white supremacist-saviour-exceptionalist worldview.

While Trump and his liberal opponents may not like to admit, but it is an undeniable fact that the US economic sanctions regime in its current form is the direct outcome, and a continuation, of the Obama administration’s “all options on the table” foreign policy.

During the Obama administration, the United States began a process of unprecedented intensification and broadening of the sanctions regime (“toughest sanctions in history” referred to by Obama himself) in order to “bring Iran to the negotiation table”. Before handing the office to Trump and on the last month of his presidency, Obama allowed the extension of the Sanctions Act to become a new law , leaving more power and authority into Trump’s hands for the continuation of a foreign policy that he had been the architect of.

During the last four years of Obama’s time in office, increasing number of reports came out of Iran highlighting the negative impact of the intensified sanctions on Iran’s healthcare system. But the US government consistently denied the warning calls and claimed that the humanitarian exceptions in place are efficient enough to handle the situation. The Iranian government also ignored and downplayed the impact of the sanctions on Iran’s health care system until recently, and instead continued to use the sanctions as an opportunity to boost its militaristic and nationalist rhetorics of “resistance economy”.

Under Obama, increasing number of reports came out of Iran highlighting the negative impact of the intensified sanctions on Iran’s healthcare system

One of the noticeable differences between Trump and Obama’s approach to the sanctions is Trump’s use of targeted sanctions on specific military entities and key individuals such as the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a step that many human rights activists and organizations have welcomed since it separates civil society from the state to some extent. However, the Trump administration has also continued to “maximize” Obama’s legacy, which makes the specific targeted sanctions seem more secondary and symbolic in relation to the broad economic sanctions that target the entire country.

In February 2020, the US treasury announced that it will install the ‘Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) designed to meet Iran’s humanitarian needs. This proves that the American government has finally admitted to the impact of the sanctions regime on the country’s medical crisis, yet is still unwilling to make any major concessions, or make clear guidelines to companies and banks in order to deter them from overcompliance.

But there is no error here, as a form of collective punishment the US sanctions are designed to be broad, vague and nonspecific in order to target and weaken the entire population. In 1997 the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about the Iraqi lives that were lost due to the US sanctions regime on the country, and her answer was “we think the price is worth it”.

As a form of collective punishment the US sanctions are designed to be broad, vague and nonspecific in order to target and weaken the entire population

Iranian lies: “It’s all America’s fault”

The regime and its supporters have used the US economic sanctions as an opportunity to externalize the blame and reject accountability for a militaristic and war based economy that has wreaked havoc on lives inside and outside the country. Through its well organized propaganda and misinformation campaigns, the regime has succeeded in framing the US sanctions as the sole, or primary, reason behind Iran’s devastated healthcare system and the country’s broader economy. The widespread usage of words like “mismanagement” help the regime in downplaying and erasing the internal factors, or framing them as mere “accidental” or “negligible” errors while exaggerating the external factors.

The truth is that with or without the US sanctions, the Iranian regime is neither capable nor interested in prioritizing the well-being of its citizens and managing the country’s affairs in a normal way. Since its violent inception in 1979, the counter-revolutionary regime has manufactured crisis after crisis and war after war to distract from its main crisis at home, namely the crisis of political legitimacy.

During the last decades the regime has continued to increase IRGC’s military budget while cutting down on fuel subsidies as well as basic welfare and social programmes such as healthcare and education. The state has also allocated more power to IRGC’s vast network of banking and contracting companies in the name of privatization, resulting in the expansion of the military-corporate apparatus and its powerful elite class into almost all sectors of the country’s economy, including oil production and export. As a result, Iran’s national wealth and resources have been drained and channeled into sustaining regional military wars and conflicts. From the decade long tyrannical war and occupation in Syria, or the funding of Hezbollah in Lebanon to supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq, the IRGC-led war economy continues to ruin lives inside and outside Iran’s borders.

Obama’s sanction reliefs did not materialize into social and economic improvement for the general population

While regime supporters argue that Iran’s regional wars are a “natural outcome” of the isolationist and antagonistic western attitude towards the Islamic Republic, evidence shows that Iranian regional expansionism as well as domestic repression has continued (and even increased) during times of reduced antagonism between Iran and the West.

Between the reaching of the nuclear deal in 2015 and Obama’s departure from the White House in 2017, the Iranian state enjoyed a relatively peaceful and non-conflicting relation with the West. As a result of the nuclear deal, Iran began to slowly increase its exports again and the Obama administration also released $ 1.8 billion of Iran’s frozen assets back into Iran’s financial system. All this means that the country was (theoretically) capable of restoring it’s damaged economy, regaining independence, divesting from regional conflicts and reducing human rights violations domestically. After all, this is what people hoped for and were promised when they voted Rouhani into office for the second term.

But none of this happened. Obama’s sanction reliefs did not materialize into social and economic improvement for the general population because Iran continued investing in its imperial project of military invasion and expansion into Syria in the name of the “war on terror”, simultaneously increasing domestic repression and authoritarianism in the name of “national security”.

This shows that contrary to Iranian state’s propaganda lines, the issue is not only “western antagonism” or the sanctions causing disruption in the flow of humanitarian aid, and international banking transactions. The more vital issues that are being systematically erased from the conversation are about where the country’s wealth and resources are being allocated and whether the country’s corrupt militarized economy even allows the equal distribution of aid and other resources among the country’s population if there was no sanctions in place. Sadly the answer is no.

This is why in a recent collective statement signed by more than 800 civil society activists inside and outside Iran, one of the key demands in response to the current crisis has been: “… total collectivization and public ownership of the medicine production industries as well as the import and distribution of medical goods, with the goal of civilian and social self-administration of this sector of the economy.”

European appeasements and handouts to military regimes won’t solve the crisis

On 31 March, Germany, France and UK (E3) announced that they have completed the first aid related financial transaction with Iran under the INSTEX mechanism (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges), a newly established financial system intended to by-pass the US economic sanctions on the country.

Even though the transaction was framed in the mainstream media as an emergency move in response to the Covid-19 crisis, the system has been under process for at least a year and was going to be launched regardless of the current crisis. Germany has announced that the system will be used in the future for other trade between Iran and the EU.

The system basically turns the EU into the financial entity that Iran deals with, as opposed to individual banks. A stronger entity that the US cannot control anymore.

The mechanism is similar to the ‘Oil-For-Food’ program. A pre-US invasion program which was established between the UN and Iraq in 1995 to by-pass the sanctions regime, which failed at saving vulnerable lives and did not prevent the collapse of Iraq’s healthcare system, due to wide scale systematic theft and corruption by both the Saddam regime as well as the UN.

The situation of humanitarian aid in Syria is very similar. During the 10 years of war in Syria, the UN has been sending humanitarian aid to the country, but because under international law, the aid can only be delivered to the Assad regime (“the legitimate sovereign state”), the areas outside control, which are areas mostly devastated by the war, remain disconnected from the flow of aid into the country. This has resulted in political, economic and diplomatic benefits for the regime while it continued to bomb hospitals and other civilian infrastructure into ruins.

While this may seem like a logical solution in the eyes of the Europeans, many Syrians have consistently pointed out the sheer banality and hypocrisy of this system, and have been demanding the establishment of a principled and neutral system of aid distribution, a system that would serve all citizens across the country regardless of their social, political and economic relationship with the state.

We can see that in all cases whether Iran, Iraq or Syria, both the US sanctions regime as well as the EU-UN reactionary strategies to bypass them have only exacerbated the grip of authoritarian local states and the warlords in these counties, reinforcing nepotism, corruption, patronage networks and war economies as civilian populations struggle to meet basic needs.

State vs society: two separate battles for survival

Stuck in the crossfire of never ending rivalries between the US and Iranian regimes, ordinary people in Iran have been left with no option but to self-organize and try to fill the void of emergency aid themselves. Whether during the current COVID-19 crisis or the periodic floods and earthquakes that hit the country, it is often the teachers, doctors, nurses, students, workers, neighborhood committees and young community organizers who mobilize at the local level in order to save lives and protect vulnerable communities.

Ordinary people in Iran have been left with no option but to self-organize and try to fill the void of emergency aid themselves

The organic establishment of grassroots solidarity and mutual aid networks is common in regions that have been historically victims of uneven development, systematic deprivation and discriminaiton by the central state. The situation usually hits catastrophic levels in the peripheral and poverty stricken regions inhabited by the country’s ethnic communities who are left to face their own fate. Regions such as Baluchistan, Ahwaz , Kurdistan and Azerbaijan.

But there’s always a limit to how much the central state tolerates such attempts. When the civil society self-organizing reaches effective levels and attempts to fill the void in leadership, the state responds with arrests,intimidations and detention. In the eyes of the central state all non-state and local initiatives for saving and protecting vulnerable communities are perceived as a threat. This has two main reasons: 1) It shows people’s capacity to run their own affairs independently from the central state 2) it hinders the regime’s external efforts in shoring up international funds for itself. The Iranian state’s sending away of Doctors Without Borders can be explained through the same dynamic.

Against the lesser evil and the status quo

The US foreign policy, whether Republican or Democrat, is designed to frame the mass suffering of civilian populations in “enemy countries” as an unfortunate but necessary “collateral damage”. In other words, a key aspect of the sanctions regimes is indeed the creation of a humanitarian crisis, a form of mass hostage taking situation in order to force the local regime to give in to American demands.

A key aspect of the sanctions regimes is indeed the creation of a humanitarian crisis

But what happens when the other side is also a military regime like the Islamic Republic which also doesn’t care about the lives of its citizens? A regime that routinely kills and imprisons poor and dispossessed masses and is willing to sacrifice the entire population for its own survival?

Whether it’s Iran, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela or Libya, the solution is neither American economic sanctions that target the entire population nor European handouts that benefit and empower local military regimes.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the surface the urgent need for a fundamental transformation of the social, political and economic orders on local, regional and global scales. Foreign and imperial relations should not be exempted.

From Iran and Syria to Venezuela, Sudan and beyond, US economic sanctions are causing suffering for the civilian populations and must be lifted immediately. But perhaps equally important, if not more so, is the internal neocolonial and post-colonial systems of dispossession and exploitation in these countries that function as structural barriers to fair and equal access to resources.


Sina Zekavat
20 April 2020