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Hooray, we brought the Iranian people to their knees

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.  

An unidentified poor Iranian man sells vases to tourists in Esfahan, Iran. May 09, 2011. (Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com)

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.

Related: ‘The myth of benign sanctions against Iran’

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.

The myth of benign sanctions against Iran
It’s stupid, dangerous and wrong to demand Iran’s humiliation 

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    1. Philos

      Here, here

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      Any suggestions?

      I personally think it is a bad prospect that Iran would have nuclear weapons, and that the west (and everyone in between) should seek to deter it.

      Iran is still an aggressor nation, for it proxy armies (Hezbollah), militias and terrorist cells, and summary justice internally.

      Rouhani was in danger when returning from his UN peace tour.

      Others accurately cite that Iran has not changed its policies towards Israel, US, just hesitated to express them publicly for the time being.

      And, I hope you note the significance of the prospect of sanctions on Israel promoted by the left, similarly hypocritical.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gearoid

        So innocents should suffer on the off chance that Iran MIGHT get nuclear deterrent some time in the future?

        Aggressor nation? Tell me, how many nations has Israel invaded in the past 60 years? How many cross border raids (Qibya ring a bell?), how many wars (56, 67, 82?). You have no position to claim Iran is an “aggressor”.

        Once again, the Israeli right is truly and utterly delusional.

        Reply to Comment
        • Stephen Basio

          Nice red herring Jerry! You almost got me. Now, let’s judge Iran without a needless comparison to Israel. Think you can hold back your blind, aggressive hatred for 90 seconds? Good. So, Iran supports global terror. That is bad. :(. They are not trustworthy. You would be better off if Iran were not to get these sort of weapons. Thank me later motek!

          Reply to Comment
      • As for sanctions on Israel, bringing the Israeli economy to its knees is not on any serious person’s agenda, whether he would like to see it or not. Even taking a tiny nibble out of the $3 billion annual U.S. gift is a distant dream. The BDS movement is trying to bring psychological pressure on Israel – the sanctions on Iran are literally killing people. Bit of a difference.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Witty

          Open eyes.

          Iran continues to fund, arm, train, perhaps order Hezbollah, to construct arsenals that comprise weapons of mass destruction against Israel, on its border.

          While Hezbollah may claim that it is doing so in some defense of Lebanon, it is the state of Lebanon’s responsibility to undertake Lebanon’s defense.

          The contention that the tens of thousands of rockets are for Lebanon’s defense is VERY questionable, more certainly a proxy of Iran, for Iran’s expansionistic purposes.

          Iran is engaged in an expansion, including in its circle of dominance a large geographic area from Iran proper, to Shia majority Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon.

          It is not tiny. It is not peaceful nor benign, nor natural. It is sought, intended, strategized.

          Open eyes.

          The prospect of nuclear weapons exerts two pressures on Israel.

          1. The direct threat, whether stated as deterrent or provoked escalatory (justifying harsh defense).

          2. The veto over any decisions in Iran’s sphere of influence, pressure. One would think that the Syrian proxy relationship and the Hezbollah proxy relationship with large arsenals of conventional weapons would be sufficient.

          The only valid need for Iran to engage in a nuclear program is for scientific and medical purposes. For energy, natural gas (that Iran has in abundance) costs around 1/3 of nuclear powered electricity generation, and nuclear generated energy is not modular like natural gas plants are, and come with enormous technological and political baggage.

          Their current stand is not reasoned, but more pig-headed, more driven by saving face, than by demonstrating the backbone of actually independent rational decision.

          Israel deserves a great deal of criticism.

          But, the “which side are you on logic” though is NOT the pursuit of truth. It is only partisan.

          Open eyes.

          My point about sanctions is important.

          Sanctions are effective only to the extent that they succeed in exerting pressure. Do you seriously want to exert the same pressure on the civilians of Israel as is exerted on Iran?

          It IS hypocrisy to oppose sanctions on civilians while supporting sanctions on civilians.

          Sanctions are a violence, both, always stated as for the urgent purpose of forcing others to act in the way that one party wants.

          You did hear my contention that the MAD hypothesis was utterly useless, that deterence based on weapons of mass destruction that one would never rationally use, is not deterrence.

          The Hezbollah tens of thousands of rockets is deterrence, as is Israel’s air force and conventional missiles.

          But, Israel’s nukes aren’t, and Iran’s nukes aren’t. Because any humane officer would never order the firing of a second strike, and there are ALWAYS humans in the sequence, necessarily.

          Reply to Comment
      • andrew r

        “And, I hope you note the significance of the prospect of sanctions on Israel promoted by the left, similarly hypocritical.”

        No one is advocating any measure that would deprive Israelis of cancer treatment or food staples. Don’t forget that BDS measures are often against companies outside Israel.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Joel

      No Larry.

      The Iran’s dictatorial mullahs have caused the sanctions, same as the dictator Saddam brought down the sanctions on his nation.

      See a pattern.

      Reply to Comment
      • un2here

        Yes, there is a pattern – accusing the Victims!!

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          The mullahs oppress the Iranian people, which people would be much better off without the ruling theocracy and without nuclear weapons.

          Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        The pattern? The USA resolves it’s political disputes with weaker foreign powers by attacking, starving and punishing innocent civilians? Yes. There is definitely a pattern of that for the last 60-years.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Vadim


      I started writing a response and then stopped.


      Reply to Comment
    5. Marcos

      Hi Larry, I respect and appreciate the passion in which you write and find your consistency in sticking with your political beliefs to be refreshing. Having said that, if you were to ask me to pick one option of the following: 1) agree that the sanctions are wrong-headed and do more harm than good 2) not give a shit; put me in the camp of the later.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Your argument is one reason why pacifism exists. There is nothing to tell a child lost for long distant political ends, not even to say more would die later if not this action now. I don’t think you, Larry, are a pacifist; prior writings suggest you have no problem with conscription. You seem to be saying that what has happened, given Iran’s likely non-use of nuclear weapons, constitutes a kind of war crime. War crimes are an attempt to limit what we do when at our worst, generally by after the fact disapprobation. Some such crimes, rape, mutilation, mass extermination or expulsion, seem to have some traction. But slower processes, such as slow removal or economic decline or barriers to growth, not. These latter are accepted, partly in argument to prevent the former from occurring.

      I don’t think pacifism evolutionarily stable, but I think pacifists are important to have around, for they push the limits of thought, hope, policy. In the present case, at least talks are beginning, which is better than the consequence of an American bunker bomb attack. North Korea was negotiated out of a bomb–until they had one. You may well be right that a nuclear Iran in inevitable. Maybe what is really going on here is an attempt to prevent the US from bombing, as I suspect the polarization thereby would be much worse.

      Overall, I think people are not made to care for one another in a global sense. But I do think some do so care, more than not tortured by that outreach.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Jan

      I am reminded of the sanctions that the US and other nations imposed on Iraq, sanctions that did no harm to the government of Iraq but were responsible for tremendous harm to the people of Iraq. It is estimated that at least half a million children died due to our criminal sanctions. When asked if the deaths of all those children were worth it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that the price was worth it.
      As it turned out the reason for the sanctions were spurious and criminal. There were no WMDs as claimed by the US government.

      I wonder if today’s Secretary of State John Kerry would say that the price is worth it if tens of thousands of Iranian children die because of our draconian and criminal sanctions? Would you say that John? Would you say that Bibi?

      Reply to Comment
    8. Laurent Szyster

      Not long ago Larry had been warning of the looming war against Iran.

      But it did not happen.

      Because sanctions worked better.

      Now a disappointed Larry vindicates the US, Israel and their allies … for very sanctions that prevented this war he was warning us against.

      Who is responsible for the hypothetic deaths of sick children under sanctions ?

      The iranian leaders who sank billions of oil revenue into a nuclear arm race regardless of the consequences on their people ?

      No, of course, not.

      They are not to be made accountable for their choices and actions. Also, how can you suspect such nice guys of wreaking havoc in the region under a nuclear umbrella, they just want to chant “Death to Israel” on an atomic tune !

      Go on, Larry, I’m sure you can dig deeper than that new low …

      Reply to Comment
    9. Shmuel

      Fact: Iran set itself up as the enemy of America. Or if you prefer, it is the other way around but it does not matter, like it or not, Iran is an enemy state of America.

      Evidence 1: The rhetoric of the Ayatolahs since they took power in the late seventies.

      Evidence 2: The embassy hostage taking which ironically unfolded during the reign of one of the most “progressive” and accommodating presidents that the USA ever produced, Pres Carter.

      Evidence 3: The Beirut bombings of the barracks of the US marines, the trail of which led back all the way to Iran.

      Evidence 4: Weekly, or is it yearly, rallies organised by The Irani regime in which they chant in unison, “Death to America”

      There is plenty of more evidence but I’ll stop there.

      So how exctly do you want the US to respond to such a hostile power which wants to arm itself with nuclear weapons?

      1. Ignore them? If yes, I would say, at your own peril.

      2. Attack them? No, you would not say that. In fact you would be out in the street protesting about US and Israeli military aggression (I mean, surely Israel would be blamed, no?).

      So I put it to you, the only option was the one they took. Sanctions. Certainly during the rule of Ahmedinejad. As for now, after Ruhani, maybe there is another way. Negotiations can be explored. But only with open eyes. Not with naivete because the stakes are too high and the potential adverse consequences are too horrendous. Not just to Israel, but to America and the rest of the world too!

      Reply to Comment
    10. edenlife72@hotmail.com

      sanctions always impact the vulnerable in a society and rarely if ever have an effect on the alleged intended victim.

      Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        So no war and no sanctions either? What then? Begging? Bribery? Or just waiting for disaster to strike?

        Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          The crickets are chirping, the silence is deafening. No response to my question?

          It is always easier to criticise than coming up with solutions to problems.

          Reply to Comment
    11. Someone

      Note :
      1. Iran havent any nuclear weapon !The America bombard hiroshima with her Nukeclear bombs now when they Use Nuke for Peaceful uses u call them terrorist ?
      2.Hizbulah is For Lebanon not iran Iran have a different group which called ( Basij) They are ready to die for islam because in quran god says if u killed for Islam u will enter to the heaven
      3. Iran Havent any terrorist group ! They are some kind of Terrorists which come from Afghanistan

      Reply to Comment
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