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Although Iran has been under some form of sanctions since 1979, today it faces indiscriminate sanctions so severe that ordinary Iranian citizens are being hurt the most. Reports have already indicated that sanctions are adversely affecting public health, personal finance, public education, and progressive social movements in Iran. Still, Western lawmakers claim that this is the unfortunate price that must be paid in order for regime change in Iran to be possible. Their argument is simple and unproven: economic pressure will trigger popular unrest that eventually overthrows the regime. However, the demonstrated reality is quite different: sanctions are lending power to the regime, and in turn crippling the people who are crying for change.
In the past, the government’s of sanctioned countries have been able to manipulate the effects of sanctions to reward supporters and disproportionally weaken opposition. Political scientist Dan Drezner explains: “In authoritarian regimes, leaders had an incentive to create private and excludable goods for supporters, as opposed to public goods for the mass citizenry.” Robert Worth, a journalist for the New York Times, notes: “Ordinary Iranians complain that the sanctions are hurting them, while those at the top are unscathed, or even benefit. Many wealthy Iranians made huge profits in recent weeks by buying dollars at the government rate (available to insiders) and then selling them for almost twice as many rials on the soaring black market.”
In addition to the regime’s ability to manipulate sanctions to their benefit, women and the middle class have emerged as the two groups most severely affected by sanctions.  Both groups are fundamental in Iran’s quest for progressive social and political change, and the regime consistently fights to repress these efforts. Sanctions help the regime’s efforts by impeding, and often reversing, the progress that these groups have struggled to make.
According to a recent report by the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), “Women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social impact of sanctions.” In a deeply patriarchal society like Iran, opportunities for women are already limited. Although there has been recent progress, the economic hardship induced by sanctions has allowed the conservative government to push forward agendas that limit women’s access to education and jobs, and encourage women to solely play the role of wife or mother. Less than ten years ago, before indiscriminate sanctions took effect, women regularly pushed back against this conservative agenda and were even effective in removing the quota system that limited women’s access to higher education. However, today this system has been enacted, and many conservatives continue to argue that women should not receive higher education and do not belong in the work force. Even school age girls are suffering from sanctions, as they are increasingly at risk of not receiving an education: when faced with financial limitations, families are more inclined to choose boys when forced to decide which child will attend school.
By inhibiting women’s role in the public sphere, the regime is effective in maintaining the male dominated society they desire, and silencing the demands of women. Educated women in all countries, classes, and races are key for effective social and political change.  This holds true in Iran, as the ICAN report observes: “Educated women from middle and traditional working classes across rural and urban areas, among the rich and the poor, have been the primary engine of socio-political change in Iran. The demand for equal rights and equal socio-political, economic and cultural rights permeates every level of society.” Thus, as sanctions disproportionally hurt women, hope for meaningful political, economic and social change in Iran diminishes.
The second group hurt most by indiscriminate sanctions is Iran’s urban middle class. These are the same people that flooded the streets after the contested election in 2009, and were the base of the grassroots Green Movement. However, increasing economic hardship and the prospect of war has placed social activism on the backburner, as job security and safety have become more pressing concerns. The regime feels less threatened by middle class dissent; the economic hardship brought on by sanctions stifles this dissent even more effectively.
Sanctions aimed at weakening Iran through isolation are clearly succeeding if the intent was to keep middle class Iranians from traveling outside of Iran. While this may seem like a small price to pay, the reality is that sanctions are limiting access to international forums and conferences that could assist progressive change in Iran. The Iranian government already restricts many citizens from attending such conferences, but due to sanctions and new limitations on Iranian travel enacted by other countries, the middle class is increasingly unable to afford such luxuries.
Also, as we saw in 2009, the Internet and other communication tools are key for activists in Iran to increase awareness and build solidarity. However, by limiting access to secure and safe online communication tools, sanctions are aiding the regime in silencing the voices of activists who are pushing for social and political change.
The argument that sanctions help facilitate regime change is clearly not the case in Iran.  Instead, sanctions are helping the regime solidify its power, while weakening the very groups that are fighting for change. The U.S. and EU should be holding the regime accountable for its repression, not weakening those who the regime fears most through indiscriminate sanctions.

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