Iran’s rulers hardly need assistance to make the lives of Iranians miserable. Iranians are suffering mightily under their government’s flagrant human rights abuses, political repression, and economic mismanagement but, writing in the Hill last week, Representative Brad Sherman argued that punishing the Iranian people is exactly what the US should do.
“Critics [of the sanctions] argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people,” Sherman writes. “Quite frankly, we need to do just that.” That Rep. Sherman so blithely asserts we must punish Iranians (a philosophy that has previously been offered by Republicans Mark Kirk and Dana Rohrabacher) underlies the futility and confusion in Congress’ sanctions addiction and it may explain why the Iranian pro-democracy activists are distancing themselves from the US. A foreign government that seeks to punish your innocent population is not what one would want to have on one’s side.
Mehdi Karoubi, a top figure in the Green Movement, explained in a recent interview with the Guardian that the sanctions are a gift to Ahmadinejad.
“These sanctions have given an excuse to the Iranian government to suppress the opposition by blaming them for the unstable situation of the country,” Karoubi told the paper. “Look at Cuba and North Korea. Have sanctions brought democracy to their people? They have just made them more isolated and given them the opportunity to crack down on their opposition without bothering themselves about the international attention.” Sherman pays little regard to such warnings, along with the long history of failed sanctions regimes against Cuba, Iraq, and even Iran. Instead, he (and many other Members of Congress) points to South Africa. The South Africa sanctions were not “targeted”, Sherman says, but instead punished the entire economy and hurt “the very people we wanted to help.” “Ultimately,” Sherman explains, “Nelson Mandela thanked us for the sanctions.” But Sherman is wrong. Nelson Mandela did not “ultimately” thank us—he and his supporters had been calling for sanctions for years in the face of opposition from Washington. It wasn’t until 1986, towards the very end of the struggle against apartheid, that Congress imposed sanctions on the apartheid government over President Reagan’s veto.
And in the South African case, the South African opposition supported sanctions. But for Iran, the opposite is true. The leaders of Iran’s democratic opposition have unequivocally condemned sanctions as destructive to their movement and harmful to the most vulnerable Iranians.
But nobody is listening— lawmakers like Brad Sherman apparently know better than the Iranians on the front lines of the democratic struggle what is best for their movement. Sherman neglects the Green Movement protests that were based not on economic grievances, but on the demands of Iranians for democracy and human rights. Delusions that sanctions can provide the pretext for a population to successfully demand democratic reforms fails to account for governments like Iran’s which have demonstrated themselves to be unresponsive to their populations and adept at exploiting sanctions to strengthen their grip on power. Iranians are still struggling for democracy and human rights, but the sanctions only impede that struggle. There are other significant differences between the South Africa sanctions and the measures recently put into place against Iran. For South Africa, the US included scholarships for black students and support for human rights NGOs.
For Iran, US NGOs face so many obstacles imposed by US sanctions, not to mention obstacles posed by Tehran, that very few actually work there. And the first victims of the new sanctions were young Iranians—the vanguards of the democracy movement—hoping to study in the US who were denied the opportunity to take TOEFL tests. Iran’s repressive rulers may not need help in punishing their own population. But if Brad Sherman is so intent on adding to the Iranian people’s suffering, I suspect that the Ahmadinejad government will be more than happy to accept his offer and will gladly give Washington more than its fair share of credit.
This article was originally published on the Hill’s Congress Blog