Iran Sanctions in the Age of COVID-19

Over the past year, COVID-19 has had severe consequences for global economies, healthcare policies, and political unrest. The brunt of this burden has undoubtedly been born by nations that are already at a disadvantage in the global landscape, those which lack relatively stable governments and economies, readily equipped and innovative healthcare systems, and robust productive capacities the likes of which only exist in a handful of global superpowers. One such country is Iran, a nation that has, for many years, suffered crushing sanctions imposed by the United States. Since the US withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018 in favor of a unilateral approach to political domination, Iran’s GDP and average living standards declined substantially as inflation rose more than 40%. Currently, the Iranian people are fighting for their livelihood against repeated viral outbreaks that claim a life at an unprecedented rate of one every five minutes.

While such sanctions are not unique to the Trump administration’s foreign policy initiatives, and have long been imposed in the name of “freedom,” “democracy,” and “anti-terrorism” around the world, the ferocity of their impact on the civilian population (that already suffers under a totalitarian regime, has limited access to medication and healthcare services, and continuously battles rising rates of inflation) has been condemned by the global community as a human rights violation. Others go even further, suggesting it is nothing short of tone deaf in a moment of such international loss and grief. In fact, as COVID-19 continues to decimate Iran’s already crumbling healthcare infrastructure, the Trump administration has suggested increasing sanctions to include the sale of medications and supplies. 

The philosophical framework that staunch proponents of this legislation claim to uphold is utilitarianism, a commitment not directly to the individual (as they argue would be too narrow in scope in matters that affect such large populations), but instead to the maximization of good, happiness, and safety on the global stage. To them, sanctions on Iran are justified because, while some Iranian lives are lost in process, such policies’ harsh economic pressure constrains the Iranian government’s ability to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, curtails their support to groups like Hamas that the US defines as a threat to national security, and promotes a sense of political consciousness in the civilian population to subvert their totalitarian government. In effect, the harsher the punishment is, the safer the world at large may be from the threat of religious fundamentalism and its derivatives. 

Critics of increased sanctions contend, however, that those in favor of such policies employ a dangerous double-standard. In particular, they argue that these policies are asymmetrical and “wishy-washy” in their use of utilitarian ideals — that while they promise to protect millions of people from potential threats of terror, they concomitantly dismiss the individual lives and liberties of Iranian citizens as unavoidable casualties in a much larger game of political chess. If the American position is to promote the greatest good at all costs however, Americans must, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said would be inclined to argue, do so at the expense of their own interests as well. No policy (regardless of its philosophical coherence) is perfect in such frankly messy circumstances. But equity in the application of frameworks like justice or utilitarianism, both towards one’s own civilians and those of one’s adversaries, may go a long way at establishing mutual understanding. 

Another point of consideration is the role of authority in geopolitical affairs of this kind. The United States, Russia, Great Britain, and China have a long history of imposing their will on smaller nations without the political or military capital to resist. After all, the Iranian democratic system in the early 20th century was the victim of a coordinated Western coup-d’etat when it attempted to privatize its oil reserves, leading to a US-backed installment of the Iranian monarchy that undoubtedly caused the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Suleimani assassination earlier this year and the constant US aggressions in flying military aircrafts in Iranian airspace, was met with a lot of Iranian posturing without much substantive retaliation. The question naturally arises then, whether any nation, no matter how grandly it brands itself as the arbiter of truth and the bringer of peace, should be allowed on account of its sheer strength to intervene in the affairs of other sovereign nations without consulting the global community? Should it be able to assassinate political leaders of other countries (even if they may indeed have committed the most heinous crimes) and impose harsh political sanctions in the name of freedom and stability? And finally, do those with extreme power and authority have an even larger obligation to equity when dealing with the lives and liberties of all people, even if such responsibilities curtail their own geopolitical interests? The answers to such questions, it seems, are still controversial.

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