Sanctions as means of economic warfare and collective punishment


Michael Jansen

Sanctions are a blunt tool used by the powerful to punish opponents but have been turned into a weapon of economic warfare by the US to harm civilians.

Since Washington’s Iranian ally, the shah, was driven from power in 1979, the Islamic Republic has been sanctioned by the US. The first sanctions were imposed by President Jimmy Carter after Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and held the staff after the exiled shah was allowed to seek medical treatment in the US. While these sanctions were lifted in 1981 when the embassy siege ended, Washington imposed an embargo on arms sales to Iran and Iraq during their eight-year war (1980-88). The US began to step up sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear programme and support for Hizbollah and Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

In 1995, all US trade with Iran was prohibited and in 1996 the US began to impose sanctions on US and non-US firms doing large-scale business in Iran’s oil sector. The US continued to use sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear programmes until the 2015 agreement was reached for lifting sanctions in exchange for reducing Iran’s nuclear programme by 80 per cent and accepting intrusive inspections by UN experts. After this deal was implemented in January 2016, Iran’s sanctions-shrunk economy grew by 12 per cent and Iranians breathed a sigh of relief when trade began to flow once again.

Donald Trump abandoned the deal in May 2018 and launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran by piling sanctions upon sanctions with the aim of forcing Tehran to buckle to hard line US demands. Iran responded by reactivating key components of the nuclear programme and limiting snap UN inspections of suspected sites.

By the time Trump left office in January this year, he had imposed 1,500 separate sanctions on Iran and Iranians. These sanctions amounted to global economic warfare as they involved not only US trade with Iran but also secondary sanctions on any government, firm or individual doing business with Iran. Economic warfare on an entire country counts as collective punishment of civilians and amounts to a flagrant violation of international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention. No one thought of castigating the Trump administration at the UN Security Council for the flagrant US breaches of international law.

Iran’s economy contracted dramatically, depriving its citizens of food, medicine and other essential goods, depreciating its currency and driving up unemployment. Nevertheless, Iran has not capitulated even though sanctions have been particularly harmful and hurtful since COVID gripped Iran last March.

President Joe Biden has said he is prepared to return the US to the nuclear deal if Iran resumes compliance but two months after his inauguration there has been no movement. US officials appear to change their minds on a weekly basis about how to proceed, creating confusion and consternation while Iran grows impatient as Biden had been expected to re-enter the deal unconditionally as soon as he took office.

US sanctions on Iran’s ally, war-devastated Syria, also amount to economic warfare on that country, its people and neighbouring Lebanon and the Lebanese. Last week, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Zayed Al Nahyan warned that sweeping US sanctions on Syria undermine Arab reconciliation efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict and promote reconstruction and recovery.

The main culprit is Trump era legislation ironically dubbed the “Caesar Civilian Protection Act”, which comprehensively punishes and impoverishes civilians. The Biden administration apparently intends to use the act to exert pressure on the Syrian government to negotiate with expatriate opponents who do not have popular support in Syria.

Thanks to a decade of conflict, Syria’s economic losses are estimated at $1 trillion. The Syrian lira — which traded at 55 to the US dollar before the war — now hovers around 3,900 to the dollar. A shortage of dollars reduces essential imports and prevents Syria from rebuilding.

Although the government had accumulated funds for modest reconstruction, it has no choice but to invest its slender resources in food and fuel subsidies and civil service salaries.

As the UN has estimated that reconstruction could cost $117 billion, Syria will have to depend in international institutions and foreign governments for massive investment, particularly in infrastructure. Businessmen eager to rebuild factories, shops, restaurants, hotels, and other commercial properties cannot be expected to fund roads, power plants, and other essentials. Without reconstruction due to the lack of massive external investment, Syria cannot recover and will continue its tragic downward slide.

Facing total economic meltdown, Lebanon has called on international donors to provide $2.75 billion for essential humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and Lebanese impacted by the Syrian economic crisis and the Caesar Act. It is unlikely, however, that Beirut can raise such a sum because no one trusts the corrupt and inept political elite to manage funds efficiently and effectively. Until Lebanon forms a new government of non-partisan experts capable of enacting reforms, halting graft and rescuing the country’s economy, Lebanon’s situation will also, per force, continue to deteriorate at an accelerating rate, particularly because the Caesar Act has disrupted and reduced Lebanon’s surviving and close economic connections with Syria.

More than any other country in this region, Lebanon needs Syria to recover and rebuild although US sanctions also negatively impact Iraq and Jordan as they have also traditionally depended on trade with Syria and Lebanon.

Economic war by sanctions became a feature of regional life when US, under George H.W. Bush, imposed harsh sanctions on Iraq after its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The air and ground war that followed in early 1991, was justified by the need to liberate Kuwait but was, in fact, a war to cripple Iraq. Baghdad was bombed and infrastructure all across the country damaged or destroyed. Once Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait, sanctions remained, impoverishing the country.

Half-a-million Iraqi children died from malnutrition and disease until the spring of 1996 when the UN adopted its oil-for-food programme, which allowed Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil to purchase food and a range of approved medical supplies. This programme remained in force until after George W. Bush invaded Iraq and toppled the Baathist government in 2003.

Although the US claims Iraq has been “liberated” from Baathist rule, Iraq’s oil revenues remain captive. They are still routed through accounts in US banks established during oil-for-food. The US has told Iraq that these accounts could be frozen if Baghdad tells US troops to leave the country.

In the case of Iraq, US economic leverage remains potent even after all-out economic warfare has ended.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.