Sanctions

How the U.S. Is Hurting Innocent People in Iran


Iranians shop in central Tehran.

Photograph by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranians shop in central Tehran.

Sometimes the obvious needs to be said: The U.S. is hurting innocent people in Iran. American-led sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program are badly damaging the economy of a nation of 75 million people. “Prices are climbing so fast that the price of milk jumped 9 percent in a single day last week,” Bloomberg reported Oct. 7. “Chicken has become so scarce that when scant supplies become available they prompt riots,” the Economist wrote in its Oct. 6 edition.

As hunger spreads, hope is dying. Bloomberg’s Yeganeh Salehi and Glen Carey recently reported on a retired supermarket clerk named Akbar Mohebi, who said that tougher times mean his son has to cancel plans to study abroad. “Yesterday, I told him forget about your dream,” Mohebi said. “Darker days will come to us.”

Officially the U.S. has no quarrel with the people of Iran. The sanctions, says the U.S. State Department, are intended simply to prevent Iran from acquiring the technology it needs to develop nuclear weapons. But much of the support in Congress for the sanctions comes from the belief that if the Iranian people are squeezed hard enough, they will rise up and stop their leaders from developing nukes.

“Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that,” wrote Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) in 2010 on The Hill’s Congress Blog.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stands by the argument than any suffering is the fault of the Iranian government, which is refusing to abide by the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The harm of the sanctions “could be remedied in short order” if the government were willing to negotiate “in a sincere manner,” Clinton said last week.

Do the ends justify the means? Experts disagree. The answer depends on quantifying two hard-to-measure things—namely, how much suffering is really being inflicted and how much that suffering is moving the Iranian government to do the right thing, says Stephen Collins, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. On the positive side, Collins notes that Iran claims, as a “confidence-building measure,” to have recently converted more than a third of its enriched uranium into a powdered form for medical research that can’t easily be reprocessed into material for a nuclear weapon.

Gary Hufbauer, an analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the sanctions “are exceptionally effective.” He defines sanctions broadly to include assassinations of nuclear scientists and sabotage of reprocessing machinery. Hufbauer says an overthrow of the Iranian regime is highly unlikely, but it’s possible that the sanctions will either induce the current leadership to rethink its weapons strategy, or stymie it until the current leaders die off and more moderate ones replace them.

Given how much pain sanctions cause, some people have said a surgical military strike would be preferable. But that might trigger a wider war that would cause even more harm than the sanctions, Hufbauer notes.

Meanwhile, the economic sanctions are reinforcing America’s image in the Middle East as a bully, says Robert McGee, a professor at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina who has studied sanctions. “Not every Iranian is bad,” says McGee. “It’s just some people in the leadership. The people you harm are a lot of times the least able to defend themselves. The poor and the working people: Their economic opportunities are evaporated.”

That’s the conundrum. “Iranians face a hard winter,” Canada’s Globe & Mail reported Oct. 3. The ends may justify the means. But Americans at least need to be aware of just how much harm they are doing to 75 million people, most of whom are entirely innocent.

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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