On September 10, National Security Advisor John Bolton was fired from his post at the White House. With one of the staunchest advocates for US imperialism now out of the Trump administration, some were optimistic that the warmongering and the sanctions placed on countries like China, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea would deescalate.
These pundits were quickly disappointed, however. In the wake of a recent attack on Saudi oil fields, the Trump administration locked arms with Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials in declaring Iran to be responsible for the attacks. Though it has failed to cite any evidence for these claims, the administration is now sending missile defense systems and 3000 US troops to Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the request of these nations. At a press conference that day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford refused to rule out a military strike against Iran. “Despite repeated calls from President Trump to begin diplomatic talks,” Esper said, “Iranian aggression continues to increase.” The US has maintained “great restraint” in its relations with Iran, “in the hopes the Iranian leadership would choose peace and reverse Iran’s steep decline into isolation and economic collapse.” The military assistance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE was a measure designed “to prevent further escalation,” Esper claimed.
These US policies of apparent “great restraint” that are to “prevent further escalation” of the region’s conflicts are, in reality, policies that are raising US involvement and exacerbating conflicts. The week of September 19, the US confirmed that it was responsible for a drone strike in Afghanistan that killed 30 and injured at least 40 pine nut farmers.
Meanwhile, south of the oil fields supposedly so viciously attacked by Iran, the US has multiple times been connected to Saudi white phosphorous bombings in the Yemeni civil war. The Obama and Trump administrations have continuously supplied Saudi Arabia with drone strike capabilities and other arms. The conflict in Yemen between the Houthis, the Saudi coalition, and other forces—a conflict now entering its fifth year—has been responsible for massive increases in poverty. In March, a UN World Food Programme report noted that 70 percent of the population was food insecure, a 13 percent uptick from the previous year. Ten million people were on the brink of famine. This May, President Trump vetoed a Senate resolution that would have put an end to US involvement in the war and begun processes to evaluate human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, such as the brutal murder by royal advisors of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Just as the threats of military conflict between Iran and the US and its regional allies will continue regardless of Bolton’s departure, so too will the economic warfare with Iran continue to rage. After the recent Saudi oil field attacks, the Trump administration announced the latest in the ongoing sanctions against the Iranian economy. The newest round targets the Iranian Central Bank and other major financial institutions. President Trump himself declared that he hoped the sanctions would be disastrous for the people of Iran: “It’s going to hell,” he said of the economy. “All they have to do is stop with the terror,” he continued, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s supposed military support of groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.
The results of these sanctions have been difficult for ordinary Iranians to cope with. The sanctions’ greatest impacts have been on goods that are usually imported, like medical supplies and advanced goods. While medicines and other humanitarian goods are not directly restricted by the sanctions, the financial institutions that have the ability to purchase them for the Iranian people are. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, for instance, which controls as much as 40 percent of the Iranian economy, cannot import any goods under the sanctions. The restrictions have greatly raised inflation, which now hovers at around 42 percent. In one 2018 report, UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy said that the “unjust and harmful sanctions are destroying the economy and currency of Iran, driving millions of people into poverty and making imported goods unaffordable.”
For some more perspective on the sanctions, I spoke with Iranian-American Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois Asef Bayat. He called the sanctions “very comprehensive” overall. He noted that the many Iranians living abroad have had great troubles with financial dealings with relatives or friends back home, such as remittances. These difficulties have been complicated by the Iranian Rial losing so much of its exchange value in the past year. “We had a student here,” Professor Bayat said, “who came here with a certain exchange rate.” When the rial began to greatly depreciate due to the 2018 sanctions, this student “realized he couldn’t get enough money from Iran to pay tuition because of this issue.” This student was nearly expelled from the university, until he managed to get a research job on campus that helped him to pay his tuition. However, many other Iranians abroad have not been so lucky. And, with Trump’s travel ban still in the courts, their legal status and ability to return home and come back remain in question.
The sanctions have clearly made life much more difficult for many Iranians, both abroad and at home. But have these struggles translated directly into action on the part of those affected by them or policy changes by the Iranian government? Despite the obvious intentions of the US to the contrary, the answer is: not really.
While Iranians are keenly aware of the impact that the US sanctions have had on their economy, they largely fold this discussion over into bigger conversations and actions about corruption and economic mismanagement by the Rouhani administration. For some, Western sanctions and their economic effects have been a recurring part of life in Iran for the past few decades. Economic relations with the West have been sour since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the Western-backed Shah and started a completely independent nation with its own, state- or otherwise domestically owned, markets for important goods like oil. Sanctions were a normal part of US policy towards Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was during this time that the US backed Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, a conflict responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iranian (and Iraqi) deaths. Before the 2015 Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commensurate US sanctions had been in effect by the Obama administration since 2009, with similar results for ordinary Iranians. Poor economic relations with the US and diplomatic isolation are therefore nothing new to Iranians in 2019.
What is fresher in the minds of Iranians than the sanctions are the renewed attacks on state welfare brought on by the neoliberal economic policies of President Rouhani. Privatization has created a new, subaltern class of the poor and dispossessed, the likes of which were very active in the December, 2017 protest and strike waves. “People are talking about the terrible inequality Iran has,” Professor Bayat said, and “there is no shying of the government away from [these policies].” In other words, the high politics of international diplomacy have not exactly changed Iranian street politics. The problems of Iranians are in reality similar to those faced by nations all across the globe: gender and sexual oppression, urbanization and digitization of the economy, exploitation, and the clamping down on social movements.
As a supposed policy instrument, the sanctions are certainly not accomplishing their goal of creating policy change. No major shifts in domestic or foreign policies have been made by the Rouhani administration since the US disavowed the JCPOA in 2018 and renewed its sanctions on Iran. The reality of the sanctions has been impoverishment and suffering for the Iranian people, rather than the elite of Iranian politics. The blind imperialism of the ruling class of the United States marches on, no matter who is at the helm and no matter how effective the “policies” really are at accomplishing their stated goals.
Nick Goodell is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied history and philosophy. He co-hosted The People’s History Hour on 104.5 WRFU for two years, and currently organizes with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Central Illinois Jobs with Justice, and CU Food Not Bombs.