Commentators portrayed President Trump’s brief speech Wednesday morning on Iran as an attempt to dial down tensions at a moment when the threat of war has loomed large. Trump, who last week ordered the airstrike that killed Iranian Quds force commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, did not answer Iran’s retaliatory missile attack on US bases in Iraq with a missile attack of his own. And, amid the usual bombast, he sent signals that, as USA Today wrote, “appeared to offer the Iranians an olive branch, signaling the United States does not seek a war with Tehran.”
Lots of attention has been paid to his declaration: “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
Yet two very different members of Congress immediately recognized a fundamental flaw in the president’s response. Because Trump announced Wednesday, “As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime. These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior.”
To that, US Representative Ilhan Omar replied, “This makes no sense. Sanctions are economic warfare. They have already caused medical shortages and countless deaths in Iran. You cannot claim to want deescalation and then announce new sanctions with no clear goal. This is not a measured response!”
Lest anyone think that is simply the reaction of a progressive who has often questioned the wisdom of imposing sanctions, one of the most conservative members of Congress also objected to more sanctions.
“Direct, firm, and peaceful engagement with Iran is more likely to bring about positive change than are further sanctions and warfare,” declared Michigan Representative Justin Amash, who has been elected and reelected as a libertarian-leaning Republican but who last year switched to independent status because of his differences with the president.
The libertarian journal Reason has also featured criticism of sanctions, rejecting the fantasy that sanctions cause people to rise up against repressive regimes. “[People] who are struggling to keep body and soul together don’t usually launch revolutions—and Iran’s mullahs have crushed all domestic unrest with decisive force,” explained a January 7 article. “The bigger problem, however, is that ‘maximum’ economic warfare makes actual warfare inevitable. This is partly because no sitting regime can accept the ignominy of such hostility and partly because, in the absence of mutually beneficial commerce with enemies, the cost of retaliation greatly diminishes. As they say, if goods can’t cross borders, soldiers or bullets will.”
US sanctions against Iran were eased under the 2015 nuclear deal—which is formally referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But Trump has rejected that deal and reimposed all the sanctions that were eased, and says he’ll add more. As the Associated Press noted Wednesday, “It was not immediately clear what those sanctions might be, and Trump’s vow left many wondering what is left for the U.S. to sanction in Iran.”
Human rights advocates have long questioned the value of sweeping sanctions. In early October, the United Nations International Court of Justice ordered the United States to ease sanctions that create “impediments” to the export of humanitarian goods, including food and medicine, to Iran. Later that month, Human Rights Watch issued a study—“‘Maximum Pressure’: US Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health”—that “documents how broad restrictions on financial transactions, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from United States officials, have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.” A statement from the group explained that
While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch found that in practice these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods. The result has been to deny Iranians access to essential medicines and to impair their right to health.
The Friends Committee on National Legislation warns that harsh sanctions harm the Iranian people, even as the governments of the United States and Iran remain at odds. “The administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, followed by inhumane ‘maximum pressure sanctions,’ have created instability in the Middle East, put us on a war footing with Iran, and caused untold human suffering for Iranian people, who now don’t have access to many critical life saving medicines,” explains said Hassan El-Tayyab, the Middle East Policy legislative representative for the peace and justice group. “These unilateral sanctions are a maximum failure and have done little to advance peace, national security, and human rights. The American people want a restrained foreign policy and the onus is on Congress to take unauthorized war with Iran off the table, create exemptions for critical medicines the Iranian people need, and to find a pathway for diplomacy.”
This is a point that Omar sought to make in a December 12, 2019, letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, which she authored with Representatives Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Barbara Lee (D-CA). The letter, which was signed by a total of 17 House members, urges the Trump administration to conduct “a sweeping review of its sanctions campaign against Iran and identify and implement the necessary adjustments required to fulfill responsibilities under international law.”
At the time, Lee said, “The Trump Administration’s sanctions on Iran and their ‘maximum pressure’ campaign are directly hurting the most vulnerable groups in Iranian society. Despite promises to stand by the Iranian people, they are preventing essential medications and humanitarian supplies from reaching those who need them the most.”
Omar added, “The sanctions put in place by this Administration against Iran are nothing less than economic warfare. After years of improving relations between the United States and Iran, the sanctions have devastated that country’s middle class, increased hostility toward the United States, and led to humanitarian catastrophe. One dire effect has been an entirely preventable shortage of life-saving medicine. This Administration must answer for their attacks on Iranians’ basic human right to affordable medicine.”