Like a Slow Poison Injected into Society

With its concept of targeted sanctions against Iran, the West has found a narrative with which it – and, ironically, the Iranian regime – can live. The people of Iran cannot. Sanctions are destroying the economy and harming the people. By Ali Fathollah-Nejad

Von Ali Fathollah-Nejad

Sanctions aim to bring recalcitrant tyrants to their senses, to put an end to their external as well as internal malefaction. With surgical precision, they pull the noose ever closer around the tyrant's neck, so that in hopeless despair, he is compelled to behave reasonably in foreign affairs while, enfeebled, he lifts his bloodied hands from the throat of the oppressed people. It is a morally justified decapitation of evil, the salutary removal of a swelling tumour.

Undoubtedly, in this description, sanctions are an extremely attractive option for killing two birds with the one stone: the culprit is hunted down, and the maltreated people are freed and released onto the path of democracy.

To maintain the moral high-ground, at each and every round of ever-tightening sanctions, Western leaders hasten to highlight that the measures adopted are not aimed at the people of Iran who, they never fail to add, deserve a better life than under the present regime.

A noble gesture of goodwill

But how do Iranians themselves feel about the "free world's" noble gesture of emphatical goodwill? Did the honourable cavalry of sanctions ever consider what it is like for those people "who deserve a better life than under the present regime" to actually live in a country that is under a severe sanctions regime?

What it feels like, when the cost of rent and basic foodstuffs are constantly on the rise; when the country's currency loses half of its value; when the spectre of unemployment is boundlessly rising due to an economy virtually cut off from the ever so vital international trade; when international banking transactions, be it for personal or commercial purposes, if possible at all, can only be made at much higher fees via an increasingly limited number of third countries; when every boarding of an aircraft resembles a gamble with your life due to the lack of spare parts; when food supplies from abroad cannot be unloaded because of a lack of insurance; and when the stock of life-saving medication and equipment is rapidly depleting, with the spectre of a humanitarian crisis clearly emerging on the horizon?

Choked by sanctions, many Iranians are reliant on subsidised food: the impact of economic sanctions on the people of Iran is growing. Inflation has risen drastically and with it the price of medicine, food, rent and electricity. Iran has also lost between 25 and 40 per cent of its income as a result of the oil embargo.


This is only one of the gigantic dimensions of their "targeted sanctions against the regime". Similar reports from Iran are reaching us at an accelerated rate day by day. They are accompanied by voices of desperation, people in a repressive system for whom the air they breathe is being made even thinner by sanctions.

Silent hope

The sanctions narrative is predicated on the idea that there is a positive relationship between sanctions and democratisation: the tyrant is tamed, and the people are empowered.

Furthermore, there is a silent but nevertheless clearly heard hope that seems to unite Western politicians and some exiled Iranians alike: the economic hardship caused by sanctions will direct the people's anger towards the regime and ultimately bring it down in an act of extreme popular resentment.

After all, there can be no freedom without sacrifice, echoes the loud heckling from parts of the Iranian diaspora from Los Angeles to London. "The price is high but the time has come to pay it," writes "Ramin" on Facebook. Almost spitting, "Sara" replies, "We are paying the price for our freedom: in case you've missed it, Evin prison is overcrowded!"

Seen from the comfort of the West, this concept, which exhibits a fascistic dimension, hailing the principle "The greater the suffering, the greater the hope!" may have a certain charm. However, the underlying assumption is that it is acceptable to collectively punish Iranian society for the sake of a greater good – however ill-defined the latter may be.

On the ground, however, there is a connection whose logic we would never dare to doubt within the Western hemisphere: sustainable and socially just democratic change is dependent not only on the energies of the middle class, but also on the intervention of working people and the poor. It is precisely this middle class, the workers and the poor that are sanctioned to death in Iran.

To put it another way, a person struggling for economic survival hardly has the luxury of engaging as a citizen in the struggle for democracy.

Mistaken belief

All along, these same politicians have displayed the apodictic certainty that Iranians would ultimately blame their own government for their economic malaise. In the improbable case that this would not happen, the sanctions policy should be better "explained" to the Iranians, they insist. What does such a belief structure reveal about our appreciation of Iranians' cognitive capability to adequately direct the blame for their increasingly desolate economic situation to either the pillages of a kleptocratic regime or the sanctions of the Western imposers?

Grist to the mill of the hardliners: academic studies conclude that when sanctions drive authoritarian regimes into a corner, they usually react by ratcheting up the repression of opposition bodies and offloading the costs of sanctions onto the people, thereby prolonging their rule


Taking into consideration the academic findings about the impact of sanctions, the Iranian case can potentially qualify as a prime showpiece: authoritarian regimes driven into a corner usually step up their repression of all kinds of opposition and are also able to shift the costs of sanctions onto the population, as a result of which they can prolong their rule.

The sanctions-imposing governments can hardly be unaware that entities connected to the ruling system, such as the Revolutionary Guards' economic empire, profit from the sanctions. With legal trade virtually illegalised, civilian economic sectors across the board are damned to head-shakingly observe how black market operations run by powerful circles of corruption and nepotism flourish. Hence, as a precise negative image of the above narrative, the regime can even extend its power over civil society as a result of sanctions.

Aware of such fatal consequences, civil-society representatives in Iran have consistently opposed sanctions. The West, which is always boasting of its support for the cause of democracy in Iran, has simply preferred to ignore these voices.

The nuclear reason

The pronouncement by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the occasion of another round of sanctions reflects the prior concern of the West's political class: "The point is that we cannot accept that Iran rushes towards the nuclear bomb."

Hardly anyone, however, recalls that since the massive tightening of sanctions in 2006, the number of centrifuges spinning in Iran has more than decupled. It is a fair assumption that the nuclear programme has in fact much to do with a sense of uncertainty. After all, the country, literally besieged by enemy troops, has been threatened with war since its revolution – a perception that can hardly be extinguished by way of sanctions.

In addition, sanctions aim to force concessions from Iran. Rather than adopting the Western cost–benefit calculation – i.e. giving in when the costs of sanctions become unbearable – Iran's leaders react with defiance and proclaim their will to "resist" as long as it takes. Sanctions also feed the regime's propaganda machinery about the malicious West that seeks to subjugate the Iranian people.

It is as if the Iraqi tragedy – a historical chapter of utter disgrace for Western civilisation – never happened. Throughout the 1990s, this erstwhile cradle of civilisation was barbarically destroyed. The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and pushed for by Washington and London, were soon condemned as genocidal by one UN humanitarian co-ordinator (Denis Halliday) after the other (Hans von Sponeck).

The disastrous effects of a currency slump: the collapse of the Iranian rial (it has lost two-thirds of its dollar value since the end of 2011) has fuelled inflation, raised the price of imports and led to a fall in living standards in Iran


Nothing less than the social fabric of Iraq was shattered; food supply, the health and education systems all collapsed, as did the infrastructure. While women and children – the most fragile members of society – suffered the most, the tyrant remained firmly in his seat. It was a "different kind of war" waged against Iraq, as Von Sponeck later chronicled in his book.

The fallacy of "smart sanctions"

The fact that the concept of "targeted" or "smart" sanctions, which is an inextricable feature of the dominant political discourse, has been adopted unaltered and uncritically by the public discourse in general and many intellectuals in particular is a testimony of our complacency, our unwavering belief in the benign nature of any actions taken by the democratic West. It seems as if we prefer a convenient lie to an inconvenient truth. This self-deception is in fact a necessary act, if we seek to keep wagging the moralising finger, both domestically and internationally.

Most importantly, what does this tell us about our moral constitution, if we are ready to sacrifice entire societies for our purported Realpolitik interests? Thus, in the righteous fight against tyranny, we hide our own barbarity. For our sanctions are a brutal assault on an entire country and its more than century-old struggle for democracy and self-determination, whose survival has now become dependent on the drip of our incessant and crippling sanctions regime. Tumour-like, the sanctions have infected all areas of Iranian life, acting like a slow poison injected into society.

Therefore, two prospects are currently to be feared if the opportunity presented by the election of the centrist Hassan Rouhani as next Iranian president is not seized by the West to bring about détente: either a suffering populace will have to battle for sheer survival within a securitised system that will not cease to be cemented through the external threat of force and sanctions alike; or, in the wake of an officially proclaimed policy failure of "targeted sanctions", the call for "targeted bombs" will swiftly follow. Needless to say, war would bury any prospect of democracy and a decent life for decades to come.

All in all, the West has put together a narrative with which both itself and the Iranian regime can live; but the people of Iran cannot. We should ask ourselves two honest questions: firstly, does not everybody enjoy the same human and social rights regardless of the political system in which they live? And secondly, if sanctions keep tyrants alive, what would happen if they were removed in toto?

Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© 2013

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a German-Iranian political scientist educated at universities in Germany, France and the Netherlands. He is currently finalising his Ph.D. thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/