Two years of US sanctions against Iran

The US withdrew the last set of exemptions provided to some foreign companies to work on Iranian nuclear sites in May, which also marked the second anniversary of Donald Trump administration’s renewed aggression against Iran.

June 24, 2020 by Abdul Rahman
Code Pink sanctions
Activists from Code Pink stage a protest in front of the US treasury department demanding the lifting of sanctions on Iran.

Numerous reports were published about Iranian inability to deal with the COVID-19 infections in the country. Iran was the first epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in West Asia and despite having a decent health care system it has witnessed high numbers of deaths (more than 9,800 as of June 23). One of the main reasons for this was the sanctions imposed by the US.

Despite the US denial that it has sanctioned any humanitarian or medical supplies to Iran, given the fact that the fear of secondary sanctions prevents most of the countries and private global health corporations from providing the necessary medicines or equipment to Iran or delays their delivery causing unnecessary deaths.

Iranian firefighters disinfect the streets amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The nature of sanctions against Iran

Iran has been facing US led economic and political sanctions ever since the revolution of 1979 when its lackey Shah regime was replaced by a more popular, nationalistic though conservative set of rulers who denounced the US led imperialist policies.

The sanctions acquired a new significance during George W. Bush presidency and his so-called “global war against terror”. Branding Iran as an “axis of evil” his regime unleashed a massive propaganda campaign against Iran’s nuclear program and tried to establish that it is building a bomb despite repeated denials by the Iranian government and even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global monitoring agency. The hitherto unilateral US sanctions were adopted and provided legitimacy by the UNSC resolution 1747 in 2007 which included sanctions on Iranian scientific researches, investment in the country and arms embargo among others. However, despite the US pressure, the Security Council did not stop Iran from selling its oil in the international market. Nevertheless, using its hegemonic control over the global financial institutions and transactions the US successfully used its unilateral set of economic and political sanctions creating hardships for the common Iranian people.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed after a long process of talks in the aftermath of 2008 economic crisis and defensive phase of imperialism with Chinese and Russian persuasion became the basis on which UNSC resolution 2231 made a blueprint of lifting of sanctions in return of Iranian compliance with its provisions.

It was working quite well till the victory of Donald Trump. His administration’s anti-multilateralism in international politics, its pro-Israel and Pro-Saudi Arabian outlook led it to conclude that JCPOA is the “worst deal ever” as it provides Iran a free space to do whatever it wants to do in the larger Middle East region compromising the imperialist interests. Its unilateral withdrawal from the deal and re-imposition of sanctions lifted in May 2018 comes with a narrow regional ambition of keeping the hostilities alive to enable its armament industry booming as Iran was gradually seen as the stabilizer in the region.

Trump has set back all of the advances that were made with US-Iranian relations.

The sanctions imposed under the so called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran can be divided in three broad categories; economic sanctions which includes ban on the trade of oil and other commodities and freezing of its global assets (including the assets of Iranian individuals) including the payment for commodities exported with the objective of drying the state revenues and crippling the economy which is highly dependent on oil and related sectors. Economic sanctions also include ban on foreign investment in the country.

The second set of sanctions are related to political and diplomatic sanctions such as terming Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp as a terrorist organization and terming some high-level state officials as persona non-grata.

The third set of sanctions are related to the ban on scientific and technological cooperation which can include the restriction on individuals or organizations involved in nuclear and other essential research. All these sanctions have economic repercussions and the US has used all of them in the last two years against Iran.

Since its announcement in May 2018, the Trump led administration has re-imposed most of these sanctions; the last being the withdrawal of exemptions given to some European, Russian and Chinese companies to work on some of the nuclear sites in Iran on May 28.

JCPOA and legality of unilateral sanctions

The US has also asked its allies to apply similar sanctions. Though most of them have not announced any formal sanctions against Iran, they have stopped trading or cooperating with it in order to save their relations with the US. For example, Japan stopped importing oil from Iran after the sanctions were announced in November.

In April, the US also tried to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran set to expire in October as per the JCPOA and the UN Security Council resolution 2231 and has campaigned for the re-imposition of all the pre-2015 international sanctions on Iran. The move has been opposed by Russia and China in the Security Council saying that the implementation of JCPOA should be the only way forward.

As Iranian ambassador to the UN Majid Takht-Revanchi said on Sunday, June 7, the US wrongly thinks that it retains the rights to snap back sanctions against Tehran under the UN security council resolution 2231. Since its withdrawal from the deal the US is no more a party to the deal and hence it cannot demand any compliance from Iran.

The UNSC resolution 2231 timelines the arms embargo against Iran ends in October 2020.

According to the JCPOA, all the signatories are parties who can bring a complaint against any other party in the UNSC for any violation. But the US uses its veto power and its financial might to suppress all attempts to create a rule based international order and wants the arms embargo to be extended. It may have its way.

Impact of sanctions on Iran

Sanctions prevent US companies from trading with Iran. However, given the fact that most of the multinational companies have interests in the US if they trade with Iran, they risk their business interest in the US or with other US companies.

The most important impact the sanctions have had is on the oil export which was the major source of its revenue. According to 2018 Iranian government data oil revenue had almost 20% share in its GDP. Iran used to produce around 4 billion barrels of oil everyday and used to export around 2.5 million barrels out of it. Since the sanctions were imposed both the production and export have fallen drastically (around 2 bbd and 0.5 bbd respectively).

Since oil revenue is dried up, it gradually becomes difficult for the government to maintain the level of social sector spending it had promised earlier leaving a vast space for economic misery for those who had been dependent on the state. It has also severely impacted the living standards of the vast majority. Most of the imported essential commodities are expensive due to depreciation of the Iranian Rial against the USD. According to the estimates the inflation rate in Iran is touching 40% which also affects the essential commodities produced at home.

Humanitarian Disaster     

When it comes to their effectiveness, sanctions are overrated. In most of the cases they never achieve their intended or declared goals. However, they always have a negative impact on the common people. Hundreds of thousands of children died due to starvation and lack of essential supplies in Iraq as a result of more than a decade long, the most inhuman sanction regime imposed by the US against it. Similar things can be noticed in Yemen where the US ally Saudi Arabia has imposed severe economic blockade of the country depriving millions of Yemenis food and medicine and pushing them on the verge of starvation. Iranian case may not be that severe yet. But, the faith in the so-called “maximum pressure” policy has already led the US to deny Iranian requests for humanitarian aid at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to ask other countries to not support it, as the “money would be used to finance terror groups”. Such allegations have been used in the past by the other US administrations with heavy human costs and instead of learning lessons from it they shamelessly repeat this.

What justifies the adamant, brainless devotion to such policy measures against a sovereign country which has not breached any established international law by a country which violates each one of them is imperialist domination. The ambition which pushes war and destruction and intensifies diseases in order to maintain the dominance; both political and economic, does not care about the human cost.