The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the Obama Administration is using sanctions to prevent Iranian civilian flights from refueling in Europe—flights that serve as “the main lifeline for Iranians with the outside world.”
This draconian step is particularly troubling since it is coming from an Administration that claimed to understand that isolating the Iranian people could “risk alienating parts of the population with which the West seeks to establish common cause”, and from a President who committed to “a more hopeful future for the Iranian people” through increased student exchanges.
But the Post explains how the Administration is working to divert and ground Iran Air flights by pressing oil companies in Europe not to refuel civilian flights.  This is a deliberate effort, according to one source in contact with the Administration, who asserts, “Be sure, the Obama administration is fully aware of the situation Iran Air is in.”
Thomas Erdbrink writes:

[The new sanctions effort] illustrates a shift away from an earlier U.S. policy of reaching out to the Iranian people and trying to target mostly state organizations central to Iran’s nuclear program. Officials now admit that the increased pressure is hurting ordinary Iranians but say they should blame their leaders for the Islamic republic’s increasing isolation.

But Erdbrink quotes a passenger on a diverted flight who takes exception:

“What do we have to do with our government?” an Iranian man asked loudly, after discovering to his surprise that the plane had landed on the Vienna tarmac. “We are becoming prisoners because of these disagreements between Iran and America.”

Stuart Levey, the top Treasury official responsible for sanctions, was asked by Charlie Rose earlier this month whether there was a concern that sanctions punishing Iranians may hurt the America’s image there and play into the Iranian government’s hands.
Levey responded, “Look, there’s an argument that says that.  I don’t think it’s an argument that’s ultimately persuasive because in this case, first of all, we don’t see the people of Iran rallying against the United States because of sanctions.”
But the perception by Iranians that they are becoming “prisoners” stuck between a repressive government that has managed to withstand popular pressure and a U.S. coalition that is indifferent to their suffering is an increasingly prevalent theme.
While President Obama explained last month on BBC Persia that Iranians should blame their own government, not the U.S., for the sanctions, that explanation left Iranians “seething”.
Jason Rezaian reports in the Global Post:

“Our connections with the outside world are diminishing every day,” said one Tehran-based photojournalist. “It feels like we’re being made into another North Korea, and it’s not just our leaders doing this, it’s the rest of the world, too.”

Similarly, an article by Rezaian in the Asia Times today reports on the reactions of Iranian citizens to the reinstated U.S. ban on Persian carpets:

“We’re wondering why the American government would do this,” said Mohammad Mehdizadeh, who comes from the renowned carpet-weaving city of Kerman and was exhibiting his wares at the international fair in Tehran. “These sanctions will only affect people in the trade. What connection does the rug business have with politics?”

The Supreme Leader, attempting to capitalize on sentiments like these, while emphasizing his own message calling for unity against outside threats, claimed today that the sanctions were aimed at creating divisions in Iran and increasing the suffering of the Iranian people.
The Administration should not be surprised by these reports.  Just nine months ago, Hillary Clinton was stating that the U.S. sought to press Iran “without contributing to the suffering of ordinary [Iranians], who deserve better than they are currently receiving.” Senior Administration officials said they had to be “deft” because “it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation—whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame.”  But now it appears Obama is shifting away from these considerations.  Hopefully his Administration is deft enough to take its own advice before it’s too late.

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