The Economic War on Iran Needs To End

The U.S. economic war on Iran hasn’t ended, and one of the costs of that war has been the increasing authoritarianism of the Iranian government. The "maximum pressure" campaign is not solely responsible for empowering Iranian hard-liners and contributing to the rigged victory of Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, but it has significantly undermined reformists, impoverished middle class Iranians, stifled the political opposition, and strengthened the hand of the most repressive elements in Iran’s government. US sanctions have oppressed and starved the Iranian people, and all of that was done ostensibly so that the Iranian government might give up additional concessions on issues that scarcely matter to the United States. Like other economic wars the US is waging, the economic war on Iran is purely destructive and serves no legitimate purpose. Like these other wars, it not only disrupts economic life, but snuffs out innocent lives by depriving people, especially those with chronic and rare illnesses, of the essential goods that they need to survive. As the election results show, the war has also contributed directly to the decline of political reform. The war needs to end now, and we need to recognize the moral and strategic bankruptcy of economic warfare waged against entire countries. It is inhumane, inherently indiscriminate, and illegitimate. It is also imperialistic and thus represents one of the worst parts of our foreign policy today.

Just as it has done in Venezuela, economic warfare against Iran has weakened and harmed the people, boosted the authoritarian system they live under, and made Iran less prosperous and less free. At the same time, the economic war has succeeded only in driving the Iranian government to reduce its compliance with the nuclear deal. The Biden administration has been very slowly negotiating a possible return to the nuclear deal, and the election of Raisi will give Biden’s domestic critics a new pretext to demand that he abandon diplomacy. Biden ought to ignore these demands, but a bigger problem for the administration is that they continue to labor under the delusion that they will be able to follow up the revival of the nuclear deal with a "longer and stronger" agreement that includes various non-nuclear policy issues. In case there was any doubt on this score, Raisi made his rejection of any additional talks on regional issues and missiles explicit in his first press conference since being declared the winner.

It has been clear from the start that Iran would not negotiate away its missiles or its support for regional proxies. When Pompeo first issued his list of 12 preposterous demands three years ago, there was never any chance that Iran would engage in talks that would have required them to give up their foreign policy and important parts of their defensive capabilities. No sovereign and independent state could allow another government to dictate its policies to it like this, and only a supremely arrogant imperial power would presume to make such demands of another country. Now that there is a more hard-line president coming in, we can be certain that the Iranian government will not budge in any of these areas.

One thing that the "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran has shown us is that our government’s obsession with Iran is out of all proportion to Iran’s ability to do harm to US interests. In fact, that obsession is completely divorced from real US interests. Iran does not and cannot threaten the United States, and it poses little or no threat to our treaty allies. US policy remains so fixated on Iran because of unwise and unnecessary commitments to regional clients, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, and because our own hard-liners seek pretexts for continuing and expanding our militarized policies in the region. The US has no compelling reason to be particularly concerned with Iran’s regional policies or its ballistic missiles. The only time that Iranian ballistic missiles have endangered US forces in the region was when the Trump administration provoked an attack on troops stationed in Iraq when Trump ordered the assassination of Soleimani. The main reason to work on keeping Iran’s nuclear program peaceful is to deprive hawks of a pretext for starting a new war, which is what the current nuclear deal did and will continue to do while it survives.

If our government will accept that a restored JCPOA is the most that Iran’s government is willing to concede and gives up on its raft of additional demands, it is possible that U.S.-Iranian relations might stabilize and gradually improve in the coming years. If the Biden administration listens to disingenuous hawkish arguments calling on them to use Trump-era sanctions to extract more concessions, it is sure to inflame regional tensions and put our governments on a collision course once again. A good way to reduce tensions and repair the damage that the previous administration did would be to lift all the sanctions imposed in the last three years. Biden’s unwillingness to do this right away after taking office was a serious error, but it is a mistake that he can still correct. Instead of trying to dictate terms to Iran like an old colonial empire, the US needs to move towards normal relations in recognition of the fact that policies of coercion and isolation have done nothing except to bolster authoritarianism within Iran.