With nuclear talks resuming Tuesday, the happy consensus is that the sanctions have forced Iran’s regime to blink. But hardly anyone wants to think about the effect they’ve had on the country’s 80 million people.
If you Google “bringing the Iranian economy to its knees,” you’ll have a lot of reading to do. This is the new cliche regarding sanctions – they’ve brought the Iranian economy to its knees. And the United States, Europe and, of course, Israel are thrilled to hear it; to the leaders and no doubt the great majority of the public in the West (not to mention here), that cliche spells success. Bringing the Iranian economy to its knees is what led Iran’s leaders to blink, to sue for economic peace, to offer – whether they mean it or not – to meet at least some of the West’s demands regarding their nuclear program. In the consensus view, the sanctions worked precisely because they were “crippling,” to use another favorite cliché – because they brought Iran’s economy to its knees.
And I’m sure this is true. I don’t doubt that the reason Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei changed his tune, or the reason President Hassan Rouhani got elected, was because the sanctions had devastated the Iranian economy. But what does it mean to devastate the economy of a country of 80 million people? How do you bring a country’s economy to its knees without bringing the country’s people to their knees, too?
You can’t, can you?
There have been plenty of news stories and NGO reports about how the sanctions have cut so deep into the Iranian economy that they have indeed crippled the basic well-being of all but the rich and well-connected. (Here, here, here and here, for starters.) Health care, especially the availability of a range of life-saving medicines, has been crippled; peace of mind about providing food for one’s family has been crippled; the belief that one will still have a job next month has been crippled, and the hope of finding a job has been lost altogether. Here’s a young Iranian woman quoted in a July story in Jadaliyya, an Arab online magazine:
I was employed at a factory, but it shut down due to the recent harsh economic sanctions against Iran’s banks and imports. Economic sanctions have narrowed the options that I used to have. I often have to choose one or two among the following: visiting the doctor, buying medicine, buying clothes, going to the cinema, etc. These days when a doctor writes you a prescription, before thinking about the high-price that you will have to pay, you think about how many pharmacies you will have to walk to in order to find the medicine. If you do find it, you never know what portion of the medicine you can afford. In the laboratories and radiology offices, health insurances one after another get canceled.
You sometimes have to search for words to find an expression to assuage the pain of a friend who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and is not able to purchase her medicine that now costs 11 million toman per month (the total annual income of all her family members together is 9,600,000 toman). The same friend doesn’t want to visit the doctor again so she and her family can forget about her sickness and the desperate reliance on miracles and God. Listening to such stories have become part of our daily lives.
Everybody knows that this is what’s going on in Iran. This is what is meant by a economy that has been “brought to its knees.” Yet with very, very few exceptions, nobody wants to think about it. Except on the far, discredited left, everybody in the West is in favor of sanctions. And with talks on Iran’s nuclear program resuming Tuesday in Geneva, the West’s policy is to maintain those sanctions in their current, crippling form unless Iran agrees to relinquish any potential it has of building atomic bombs. (Netanyahu, of course, wants the West to make the sanctions more crippling yet.)
Even if supporters of this policy argue that Iran cannot be allowed to make nuclear weapons, even if they think it’s right for the U.S., Israel, France, England and all the other sanction-promoters to have nukes but not Iran, let them at least admit that they are deliberately, knowingly inflicting collective punishment on tens of millions of people to achieve their goal.
These sanctions have not been “targeted”: They did not stop Iran’s nuclear program, nor, presumably, did they damage the quality of life of Khamenei and the rest of the regime’s leadership. What they damaged were the very basics of a decent life for the Iranian people as a whole, with the poorest, sickest and otherwise most vulnerable of them naturally being damaged worst of all.
People died because of these sanctions. Children, too. Not as many as the 200,000 to 500,000 Iraqi children estimated to have died from the UN sanctions that followed the 1991 Gulf War, but when you bring a civilian population of 80 million to its knees, you’re going to kill some number of them, including kids.
Everybody knows this. Hardly anybody gives a shit. We have nothing against the Iranian people, just their cruel regime, say Obama, Netanyahu and the rest. I imagine Iranians are enraged by those words, but they’re not meant for Iranians – they’re meant for the people of the West, as another shot of novocaine for their already numbed-out consciences.