The West’s Sanctions on Iran – A Question of Morals

On the 14th of November, the Guardian reported that an Iranian haemophiliac boy had died due to the shortage of adequate medicine in his country – a shortage related to the rigid sanctions imposed by the West against Tehran. The boy is said to be the first victim of the sanctions targeted at the country’s economy and meant to put pressure on Iran to stop the enrichment of uranium, which, according to Western powers, is used by Iran to develop the atomic bomb. The question now is: can these sanctions be justified given their consequences for the Iranian people?

Image courtesy of Daniella Zalcman, © 2007, some rights reserved.

The sanctions enforced upon Iran mainly aim at the country’s oil export, trade, and banking sector. Up to this point, the effects on Iran’s economy have been devastating. Since Iran does not have refineries, it is entirely dependent on the export of oil now restricted due to the EU’s embargo – for this reason, Iran’s daily production of oil has reached its lowest point in over two decades. The average monthly salary for an Iranian has been cut in half. The country’s inflation rate is between 20 per cent and 25 per cent and rising: the country’s currency is in free fall and has lost 80% of its worth in comparison to last year. The EU’s latest sanctions, issued in October, have severed any financial connections between Tehran and Europe; Iran is now literally on its own. Although trade products such as medical supplies are officially exempt from any embargos, the EU’s sanctions against the Iranian banking sector have made it extremely difficult for Iranians to purchase certain medicine only produced in the West. This is the point where the civilian population comes into play; the example of the boy mentioned in the introduction shows that, even if sanctions are not explicitly directed against the common people, they are also affected.

The whole situation is strongly reminiscent of US sponsored sanctions against Iraq during the days of the Saddam regime which had also led to human suffering. When Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the United Nations, was asked if she knew that Iraqi children were dying due the sanctions, she answered, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it”.[1] Or, more abstractly, think of Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army during the American Civil War, who has often been portrayed as a ‘butcher’ who, as legend has it, threw wave on wave of his soldiers against the lines of the Confederates. Both examples show a certain disregard for life and stand for cases in which the political ‘higher goal’ was placed over the worth of human life. But can this be the solution? I argue no. The members of the international community, especially the US and the EU, have to ask themselves if they really want to seek a victory by pursuing a morally questionable strategy and whose success is highly uncertain. Of course, neither the US nor the EU will now step back from sanctions, since it would make them seem weak and undetermined. The sanctions, however, should have never been imposed in the first place. It is indisputable that the Western powers knew of the harsh consequences which economic sanctions bring on civilian populations, especially after the disastrous humanitarian impact of the sanctions against Iraq had become known. Therefore, any ‘collateral damage’ was deliberately chosen: for the West, Iran must be kept from developing the atomic bomb, even if that means inflicting pain and even death on the Iranian people.

It may be argued that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the legitimate representative of the people of Iran and that the people have brought the trouble onto themselves by putting a regime in charge which, from the very beginning, was bound to lead the country into isolation. This might be true to some extent, although one has to consider the regime’s widespread manipulation of elections and its influence on the people’s voting behaviour through propaganda. No civilians, however, should be held accountable – in the sense of doing physical harm to them – for a government’s agenda, no matter if a citizen supports her or his representatives’ behaviour or not: such an approach would, after all, be morally bankrupt and a serious violation of human rights.

Surely, Ahmadinejad is no easy negotiating partner, as he likes to present himself as a witty and narcissistic leader who is leading the rest of the world up the garden path. Besides, the regime’s perpetual denial of the Holocaust, its alleged involvement in the planed assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, its covert interference with the Syrian civil war, its well-known support of Hezbollah, and its mistreatment of any opposition movement is certainly no expression of either outstanding intelligence or great statesmanship. Hence, convincing Ahmadinejad might be a tough endeavour – but maybe the only possibility. Although both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney stated during their respective electoral campaigns that the sanctions against Iran were “working”, the sanctions’ political impact on the regime has yet to be shown. So far, the crumbling economy of Iran has neither led to the downfall of the regime nor to a revolt of a people fed-up with Ahmadinejad’s policies. On the contrary, reports of growing anti-Americanism, especially amongst the young and educated class of the population, are increasing. A renewal of the negotiations might be without an alternative, if the West wants to keep Ahmadinejad’s hands off the atomic bomb and at the same time itself from tumbling into a moral dilemma.

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