In the midst of a global pandemic, the U.S. should be looking at how to ease the flow of medicine and food to civilian populations around the globe. However, elements within the Trump administration are instead reported to be considering a proposal championed by the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and pro-war Senators that would further escalate pain on Iran’s civilian population. Under the proposal, Iran’s entire financial sector would be blacklisted, including the few remaining Iranian financial institutions that have been allowed to continue importing medicine and food into Iran.
The effective outcome would be a unilaterally-imposed boycott of the country, with any continuing trade rendered sanctionable. Such a drastic move would likely cause a severe economic shock absorbed by Iran’s civilian population, who would bear the costs of rising food prices and increasing scarcity of vital and life-saving medicines at the same time the country tries to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
To add to the sadism of the proposed policy, its crafters have not even tried to hide that the motivation for such stringent measures are political. The goal is not to sanction banks involved in nefarious activity, but to pursue the twin goals of pain in Iran and obstructing a potential Biden administration’s ability to restore the accord that restrained Iran’s nuclear program.
For FDD, economic pain and a destruction of diplomatic pathways have been the ultimate goals of the so-called “maximum pressure” campaign that they have championed under Trump. Writing in 2019 when the Democratic Presidential field had strongly supported a restoration of the nuclear accord, FDD’s Mark Dubowitz urged that the Trump team erect a “sanctions wall” that a Democratic successor could not easily dismantle. Similarly, in advocating the latest blacklist proposal, Dubowitz and his colleague Richard Goldberg argued that now was the time to “cut off Tehran’s financial oxygen,” and box in Joe Biden should he win the Presidency.
However, 83 million Iranians depend on Tehran’s financial oxygen to survive. Accordingly, the plan has apparently encountered opposition internally within the administration, with some officials raising concern about the plan’s impact on existing humanitarian channels amid the pandemic. As one pharmaceutical worker told Bloomberg regarding the plan to cut off remaining banks facilitating humanitarian trade, “[T]hey want to completely suffocate us. Iran will be completely crushed and many people will suffer.”
FDD has sought to cover the callousness of their proposed policy with the fig leaf of a single, narrow humanitarian carveout. Dubowitz and Goldberg argue that the Trump administration only needs a single Iranian bank, working through the clunky Swiss humanitarian channel it recently helped craft, for humanitarian trade to flow. Yet, if any humanitarian trade were to flow at all under such an arrangement, it would be a trickle — hardly sufficient for a nation of 83 million amid a pandemic. As Esfandyar Batmanghelidj has warned, such a plan is “not viable.” After all, the much-touted Swiss channel only managed to process its first humanitarian transaction with Iran amid the pandemic in late July, several months after the pandemic spread like wildfire in Iran. It is outrageously reckless to expect it to absorb the needs of an entire nation.
Those advocating more economic pain for Iranians want to pretend that it is only the Iranian government that will suffer, and that with just a little more pressure the regime will collapse or capitulate. Yet, such prognostications are a mirage designed for the U.S. to go further from the diplomatic path and deeper into the sanctions desert. Following the hawk’s playbook has led to an expanding Iranian nuclear program and a more confrontational Iran. Far from suffering, hardline elements have profited politically and economically while ordinary Iranians deal with rampant unemployment, inflation, repression and Iran’s civil society and organic movements for human rights have been throttled. Moreover, the U.S. and Iran have teetered on the brink of full-blown war twice, only to narrowly avert disaster.
Trump may ultimately fall for yet another Iran sanctions con. However, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify an approach that has only led to pain for Iranians and blowback for U.S. policy goals. All Iran hawks have achieved is a sharpening of the choices for the next administration. The U.S. can continue down a painful and risky pathway that has overwhelmingly failed over the past four years, or return to the diplomatic path that secured tangible Iranian concessions and offered Iranians hope for a brighter future.