Iran Sanctions Now Causing Food Insecurity, Mass Suffering
By Glenn Greenwald
October 09, 2012
The Economist this week describes the intensifying suffering of 75 million Iranian citizens as a result of the sanctions regime being imposed on them by the US and its allies [my emphasis]:
Six years ago, when America and Europe were putting in place the first raft of measures to press Iran to come clean over its nuclear ambitions, the talk was of “smart” sanctions. The West, it was stressed, had no quarrel with the Iranian people—only with a regime that seemed bent on getting a nuclear bomb, or at least the capacity for making one. Yet, as sanctions have become increasingly punitive in the face of Iran’s intransigence, it is ordinary Iranians who are paying the price.
On October 1st and 2nd Iran’s rial lost more than 25% of its value against the dollar. Since the end of last year it has depreciated by over 80%, most of that in just the past month. Despite subsidies intended to help the poor, prices for staples, such as milk, bread, rice, yogurt and vegetables, have at least doubled since the beginning of the year. Chicken has become so scarce that when scant supplies become available they prompt riots. On October 3rd police in Tehran fired tear-gas at people demonstrating over the rial’s collapse. The city’s main bazaar closed because of the impossibility of quoting accurate prices….
Unemployment is thought to be around three times higher than the official rate of 12%, and millions of unskilled factory workers are on wages well below the official poverty line of 10m rials (about $300) a month.
That sanctions on Muslim countries cause mass human suffering is not only inevitable but part of their design. In 2006, the senior Israeli official Dov Weisglass infamously described the purpose of his nation’s blockade on Gaza with this candid admission: “‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman justified the Iran sanctions regime this way: “Critics of sanctions argue that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”
Even more infamously, the beloved former Democratic Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – when asked in 1996 by 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl about reports that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US-imposed sanctions on that country – stoically replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” So extreme was the suffering caused by sanctions in Iraq that one former UN official, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest, saying that the sanctions policy met the formal definition of “genocide”:
We are now in there responsible for killing people, destroying their families, their children, allowing their older parents to die for lack of basic medicines. We’re in there allowing children to die who were not born yet when Saddam Hussein made the mistake of invading Kuwait.
In an excellent Op-Ed for Al Jazeera last week, Murtaza Hussain extensively documented the devastation wrought on 26 million Iraqis by that sanctions regime – the one Albright declared as “worth it” – and argues: “that tragedy is being willfully replayed, only this time the target is the population of Iran”. He explained:
Intensifying sanctions against the country have sent the Iran’s rial into an unprecedented free-fall, causing it to plummet in value by 75 per cent since the start of the year; and, stunningly, almost 60 per cent in the past week alone.
Ordinary Iranians completely unconnected to the government have had their lives effectively ground to a halt as the sudden and unprecedented collapse of the financial system has rendered any meaningful form of commerce effectively impossible. In recent weeks, the price of staples such as rice and cooking oil have skyrocketed and once ubiquitous foods such as chicken have been rendered completely out of the reach of the average citizen.
That is a fact that should be deeply disturbing to any decent person. In 2001, the writer Chuck Sudetic visited Iraq and then wrote in Mother Jones about what he saw: namely, that the US-led sanctions regime “killed more civilians than all the chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons used in human history”.
Yet as Hussain notes, the decade-long suffering of Iraqis was all futile when viewed next to the ostensible goal of sanctions: “the sanctions failed to remove Saddam from power and by many accounts helped him solidify his grip on the country by keeping the overwhelming majority of the population focused purely on subsistence.” Some isolated exceptions notwithstanding, the very idea that a regime can be undermined by severely weakening the population that would otherwise oppose it—literally weakening them physically through food and medicine deprivation—is not only intuitively absurd and morally grotesque but also empirically disproven.
As Mohammad Sadeghi Esfahlani and Jamal Abdi recently documented in Foreign Policy, the sanctions regime, while devastating ordinary Iranians, is having virtually no effect on their leaders – other than to strengthen their grip on power:
Instead of speculating from afar, we should listen to the Iranians on the ground who are actually struggling for democracy firsthand. The leaders of the Green Movement and Iranian human rights and democracy defenders have adamantly opposed broad sanctions and warned that confrontation, isolation and broad economic punishment only undermine the cause of democracy and rule of law in Iran. A new report by the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) documents how sanctions are destroying the sources of societal change in Iran. ‘The urban middle class that has historically played a central role in creating change and promoting progress in Iran are key casualties of the sanctions regime,’ according to the report.
As documented by the report’s firsthand account on the ground, sanctions are not driving the working class to join Iran’s democracy movement, they are doing the opposite – decimating the Iranian middle class, that has been at the center of the democracy movement, by intensifying their economic struggles. The greatest impediment for Iran’s pro-democracy movement—as we saw at the height of the Green Movement protests in 2009—has been that working class Iranians who are preoccupied with immediate financial struggles are unable to enlist in a struggle for political freedoms.
So horrific is the human suffering brought about by such sanctions regimes that some are beginning to argue that killing Iranians with an air attack would be more humane. That was the argument advanced several days ago by the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Blake Hounsehll, who mused that he was “beginning to wonder if limited airstrikes on Iran may actually be the more morally sound course of action.” He was contemplating airstrikes, he then explained, because “a couple thousand deaths” might be worth it to avoid “the livelihoods of 75 million people destroyed”.
Part of Hounshell’s announcement is simply the way America’s foreign policy elites so casually call for actions that they know will end the lives of large numbers of innocent human beings: it may be time to cause “a copule thousand deaths”, he suggested with an almost audible yawn. And part of it is what Council on Foreign Relations president emiritus Leslie Gelb candidly described as “the disposition and incentives” among America’s foreign policy professionals “to support wars to retain political and professional credibility”. In other words, supporting military action is what America’s influential foreign policy commentators, by definition, reflexively do in order to advance their own career and make themselves relevant.
But part of Hounshell’s statement reflects the difficult-to-dispute recognition on his part that the sanctions regime causes such intense, widespread human misery that—in the warped Washington world in which airstrikes and sanctions are the only two cognizable options—extinguishing the lives of “a couple thousand” innocent Iranians may actually be the more humanitarian outcome when weighed against the ongoing suffering of 75 million people from the sanctions regime. That is how devastating sanctions are.
What’s most extraordinary about all of this is that the extreme human suffering caused by US-led sanctions is barely acknowledged in mainstream American political discourse. One reason that Americans were so baffled after the 9/11 attack (why do they hate us?) is the same reason they continue to be so baffled by anti-American protests in the Muslim world (what are they so angry about?): namely, most Americans literally have no idea, because nobody ever told them, that their government’s imposition of sanctions in Iraq led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, and they similarly have no idea that the suffering of ordinary Iranians is becoming increasingly substantial.
People in the Muslim world (who are relentlessly depicted as propagandized) are well aware of the human devastation US sanctions have caused, while Americans (who think of themselves as the beneficiaries of a free and vibrant press) have largely had those facts kept from them. That dynamic in part, is what often explains the irreconcilable worldviews among people in those two parts of the world.
As usual, don’t look for Democratic partisan to object to any of this. To the extent that they talk about the sanctions regime at all, it is typically to celebrate it: as proof of Barack Obama’s “toughness” and his fealty to Israeli interests. So just as was true during the Clinton years, when very few Democratic partisans even bothered to acknowledge (let alone oppose) the lethal devastation wrought on Iraqi civilians, few now even consider the notion that sanctions are strategically unwise and morally indefensible, and when they discuss it at all, they praise Obama for putting the clamps on the Iranian economy.
In essence, the same mentality that drives Democratic support for drones sustains Democratic support for sanctions: they tacitly embrace the unexamined assumption that the US is inevitably going to engage in aggression and kill Muslims, and then pat themselves on the back for cheering for the way that kills the fewest (I support drones because they’re better than full-scale invasions; I support sanctions because they’re better than air strikes). They are seemingly incapable of conceiving of a third alternative: that the US could or should refrain from killing innocent people in predominantly Muslim countries.
Democratic support for sanctions on Iran shares another attribute with the pro-drone mentality. No matter how many times it is documented that drones do not decrease the threat of terrorism but rather increase that threat—by generating the anti-American hatred that drives terrorism—drone advocates insist: we must do this to stop the terrorists.
Identically, no matter how many times it is documented that Iraq sanctions actually strengthened Saddam’s regime by literally starving the opposition and making them more reliant on regime support, sanctions advocates insist: we must impose sanctions, and harm ordinary Iranians, in order to remove Iran’s regime. It is exactly like showing a lung cancer patient studies that prove that smoking causes lung cancer, and then sitting back while they insist that they will increase their cigarette intake in order to combat their cancer.
Even if it were true that sanctions produces less civilian harm than all-out air strikes on Iran, that would not justify sanctions. But as evidence of the sanctions-caused human suffering in Iran mounts, even the premise of that claim, irrelevant though it is, seems less and less convincing.
I have one other question: 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.