The Obama administration’s claim that sanctions on Iran are working is belied by a problematic truth: Sanctions are a short-sighted and often ineffective tool of statecraft. In the case of Iran, they have had a strongly negative impact on the average Iranian, thereby diminishing the United States’ moral standing in the world and undermining the goal of reducing the security threat posed by Iran. Recognizing this, the U.S. should embrace a new strategy of principled re-engagement with Iran that revisits diplomacy and minimizes harm to regular Iranians. Such a strategy is the best way to alleviate the long-term threat posed by the Iranian regime.
Sanctions, by definition, aim to cause economic pain. Advocates of sanctions argue that they target only the elite, but the reality is they are more like a chainsaw than a scalpel. Consider the sanctions levied against Iraq’s leadership in the 1990s. U.N. reports indicate that, despite focusing on Iraqi leaders, sanctions caused the nation to slide from 54th to 127th worldwide in human development rankings. Life expectancy dropped from 65 years to 58. Iraq could not import the goods necessary for basic survival, allowing disease, starvation and poverty to run rampant.
Recent reports indicate that Iran may be headed in a similar direction. Iran’s government bears most of the blame for its economic woes, but sanctions have worsened the situation. The Iranian riyal has declined sharply in value, while oil production has decreased. Meanwhile, incomes have plummeted, and basic goods are growing scarce. Food prices are increasing, and Iranians, fearing a food shortage, have taken to stockpiling staple items. The cost of medical care is rising, creating obstacles to treatment. Up to 1,200 Iranian cancer patients go without radiological treatments each year, as hospitals are unable to obtain the technology needed to operate the necessary equipment.