Iranians are bearing the brunt of an intolerable crisis that may yet deteriorate if the international-sanctions regime enforced by the United States cuts deeper into Iranian society. Iran is not on the brink of economic collapse, or political upheaval, as some strategists hope, but the sanctions are hurting the civil society of the country and its most vulnerable members, especially women, children, the elderly and the poor. This reality has profound political implications.
The more relaxed atmosphere of the "Persian spring" under the reformist Mohammad Khatami, president of Iran from 1997-2005, are long gone. At that time, non-governmental organisations flourished in Iran, the country's academics were welcome guests at international conferences all over the world, and the notion of a "dialogue between Islam and the west" promised to challenge stereotypes on both sides of the cognitive divide.
Khatami himself was not audacious enough to bring about the reforms that many Iranians continue to demand, but he had a genuine will to open up the country's political system. Under his presidency, Iran had considerable diplomatic capital, several strata of Iranian society were involved in the political system, and some pioneering Iranians in the diaspora returned to make a contribution. There was a genuine pluralistic momentum emanating from society that fed into a new form of "democratised" politics which fortified Iran’s national security from within.
All this is very different to today's situation. The institutional components of Iran’s civil society are under constant threat. Many allies of Khatami and the reformists have been ostracised, jailed or harassed into exile. But this outcome is made worse because Iranians are squeezed not just by the divisive government of President Ahmadinejad but by an intransigent and hypocritical "international community".
The tragedies that ordinary Iranians are grappling with due to the sanctions regime imposed on Iran are laid out in a report by the International Civil Society Action Network. Among its findings are that cash-stripped Iranians are forced to opt out of cancer treatment, and that unprecedented sanctions in the banking sector have made it impossible for many Iranian students at foreign universities to receive funds from their family at home. (Those like myself who work in academia can confirm this with many sad anecdotes.)
Women are particularly hard-hit. They are being pushed out of the job market and at the sharp end of growing unemployment, finds the report. A women’s-rights activist says: "I don’t know of any people who have suffered these kinds of sanctions over such a long period, except Palestinians and Cubans...I only ask why do they hate us so much?"
A bargain for life
Crisis situations bring out the worst in states. The enduring crisis over the nuclear-energy programme has given Iran’s rightwing the perfect excuse to discipline and punish, and to avoid political reforms. The reformists are suffocated. The few who are allowed to breathe, including former president Khatami, are timid, partially due to national-security considerations. The endless nuclear negotiations and the constant threat of war leave everyone in Iran suspended and confined.
Shirin Ebadi, the lawyer and Nobel laureate, argues that the nuclear negotiations should be linked to the question of human dignity in Iran, as a way of lifting pressure on people. The flaw in this view is twofold: it questions Iranian sovereignty, and it assumes that the "west" has an interest in human-rights promotion beyond narrow power considerations. There is a reason, after all, why no European Union human-rights delegations are going in and out of Riyadh: namely, Saudi Arabia is considered to be an ally of the "west", hence the severe human-rights abuses in the kingdom are not turned into a political tool.
The correlations between human dignity in Iran and the nuclear issue is a different one: As long as the nuclear file is unresolved, the situation for ordinary Iranians will not improve. To that end, bringing the negotiations to a peaceful end is crucial.
The most effective way to bring this about would be to work on a "grand bargain" that included defensive security guarantees, a non-aggression pact that gives Iran the assurance it needs in a volatile geopolitical environment. After all, a state that does not feel threatened would not contemplate acquiring a nuclear weapon in the first place. If the threat of war can be minimised by such a pact, it will both make harder the quelling of dissent in Iran in the name of national security and create space for much-needed political reforms.
Since its inception the Islamic Republic has grappled with an intense insecurity dilemma. The state has been a target of invasion, sanctions, and constant military threats; was caught between the main sites of the "war on terror" for almost a decade; and is surrounded by United States military bases. This habitat fostered the securitised politics that Iranians today are confronted with. The absence of compromise in the nuclear negotiations gives Iran's rightwing the perfect excuse to divide and rule the population in the name of "national security", and thus exacerbates this securitisation of Iranian politics. In the meantime, Iran’s vibrant and combative civil society is facing mounting pressures.
As such, western sanctions reveal themselves as a war by other means against ordinary Iranians. If they were aimed at changing the behaviour of the state on the nuclear issue or undermining its institutions, the political dividend has been nil. Both precedent and principle suggest that the policy was always misguided. The cases of Cuba and North Korea are other examples where sanctions did not yield strategic results, and the Iranian government (as I have argued for years) does not yield its strategic preferences to international threats.
The prospects for a breakthrough that would interrupt the cycle of sanctions and military threats looks bleak, certainly in the short term. Whenever there is room for compromise, the Binyamin Netanyahu administration in Israel is quick to increase the pressure on the international negotiating team, lest Europe and the United States would consider a grand bargain with their nemesis.
A peaceful resolution of the nuclear negotiations and the lifting of sanctions would create space for Iranians to act as citizens of a republic again, relieved from the pressures of internal securitisation and external harassment. In pursuit of those linked objectives, the economic war against Iran has to be resisted.
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