Originally published in Jadaliyya on May 8, 2012.
Media reports on Iran oscillate wildly between threats of imminent military action and hopeful reports of diplomatic progress. Amidst this confusing din, there is a constant truth: the United States has not ceased its economic bullying of Iran, nor has the threat of war receded. As Dennis B. Ross, the Obama Administration’s former Iran advisor, told the New York Times, “now you have a focus on the negotiations…It doesn’t mean the threat of using force goes away, but it lies behind the diplomacy.” This echoes President Obama’s persistent refrain on Iran: “All options are on the table.” We argue that sanctions against Iran are not designed to work as an actual alternative to war, but rather are meant to, first of all, appease calls for sabre-rattling at home and by Israel; second, assert economic control over Iranian oil, while curbing Iran’s increasing influence in the region; and third, lay the groundwork for a diplomatic due-diligence claim in order to justify any potential military strike.
Diplomacy, also commonly thought of as an alternative to war, must be understood within the underlying context of the United States’ efforts to reestablish its sphere of influence over Iran, which it lost after the 1979 revolution. Ongoing talks between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany are not genuine negotiations, but rather are an effort to wring concessions from an economically weakened Iran. The dangerous outcome of these “talks” is that if Iran refuses to submit to Western bullying, the United States will be able to claim that diplomacy has failed, and move towards more aggressive means of achieving its agenda. The effect is that both diplomacy and sanctions become a prelude to war. If Iran does grant some concessions to the United States, this will only increase the US drive to regain access to Iranian oil as well as consumer markets and bring the two states one step closer to cutting a deal at the expense of ordinary Iranians.
Given the vast power imbalance between the two countries, “normalized relations” can only mean US support for another authoritarian regime. Note the fact that Libya achieved “peace” with the United States (that is, sanctions were lifted and it was taken off the State Department list of terrorists) at the very moment when it agreed to stop its nuclear program and allow US corporations a ninety percent share in its newly discovered oilfields. The two choices offered—subordination to the United States or escalation of hostilities—are both unacceptable, since they thwart the self-determination of the Iranian people. In addition, the recent NATO invasion of Libya shows that normalized diplomatic relations can be tossed out the window at any time should the United States and its allies see the opportunity to insert their influence more forcefully.
Everyday life for the majority of Iranians is already becoming increasingly unbearable. The Western drumbeats of war are a death threat hanging over their heads, and sanctions erode living standards and hope for a viable future. In this context, we feel it is necessary to lay bare sanctions against Iran for what they really are—the consolidation of geopolitical hegemony and war by other means. This article responds to the stated justifications for sanctions and outlines the impact of sanctions on ordinary people. As feminists, we insist that lasting peace and security will be built by people on the ground in Iran who are mobilizing for political and economic justice—democratizing Iran “from the inside out.”
While the United States insists that Iran is developing a “nuclear capacity”—a new term in US rhetoric that allows for slippage between nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry—this is by no means justification for sanctions or war. The US accepts Israel’s nuclear weapons, as well as India’s and Pakistan’s—all of them states that have proven how dangerous they are by engaging in horrendous border wars, occupations, and political repression. Regardless of Iran’s nuclear program, US policies and threats are a way of forcing Iran to line up with US interests in the region. This realpolitik does not, however, mean that we should defend Iran’s “right” to nuclear energy or weapons. As feminists, we take a broader view of the nuclear issue, and see a sense of urgency in unpacking the claims of national rights and regional security.
The world has seen the destructive capacities of nuclear weaponry, and even the nightmare of nuclear energy disasters (in Chernobyl, and more recently in Japan), and has the right to demand an end to the suicidal and homicidal drive towards ever-expanding nuclear capacity. Scapegoating one nation, however, does little to promote the effective global nuclear disarmament that is an environmental, political, and humanitarian necessity. When it comes to nuclear weaponry, the United States has acted hypocritically, fueling a nuclear arms race with itself as the extreme front-runner. The only nation to actually drop nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the United States did so to establish itself as a superpower after World War II—at the expense of millions of people’s lives.
The United States keenly understands the use of nuclear weapons to promote regional dominance. In recent years, the United States has promoted the nuclear ambitions of its allies, like Israel, and turned a blind eye to the ambitions of other nuclear powers, including India and Pakistan, while focusing all of its political attention on Iran. Rather than accepting the cynical US sanctions effort against Iran, we instead need a reinvigorated global disarmament movement that opposes nuclear weaponry everywhere.
Besides bombs, nuclear energy has proven nearly as dangerous. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany decided to close all of its nuclear reactors by 2022. Some European nations have followed by pledging to scale back their nuclear programs. Activists should demand that the United States take Germany’s lead. Rather than crippling the Iranian people in order to ineffectively punish their leaders, the United States should halt the arms race by dismantling its own nuclear arsenal. The sad truth is that if Iran’s nuclear program poses a threat to anyone, it is to the Iranians who would live closest to the nuclear reactors.
We should not assume that all Iranians support a “right” to nuclear energy as a nationalist stance of defiance towards the West. Many Iranians are terrified to have a government they do not support or trust in charge of radioactive materials, capable of causing environmental devastation and health crises for generations to come. Just as most Americans do not want to live near a nuclear plant, neither do most Iranians. We stand in solidarity with Iranians and people around the world who demand an end to nuclear energy and weapons production.
War by Other Means
While Iran has been subject to sanctions since the 1979 revolution, recent moves by the United States and European Union are significantly changing the economic and political landscape. In July 2011, President Obama announced the harshest set of sanctions to date, targeting Iran’s oil and banking industries and essentially barring any bank that processes Iranian oil transactions from doing business in the United States. The EU has agreed to ban any transactions with the sanctioned banks, while the SWIFT international banking system climbed on board to also block these banks as a way of intensifying the sanctions. Adding to the mix, the recent and unprecedented EU oil embargo—with a complete cessation of imports by member nations by July 2012—further cripples the Iranian economy. We believe that Western powers are increasing the severity of the sanctions and targeting the central oil industry in order to completely collapse the Iranian economy, with the Iranian government presumably to follow.
These economic attacks are rapidly snowballing as Asian countries—Iran’s biggest clients for oil—are pressured to follow the US and EU lead. Japan and South Korea are expected to gradually eliminate their reliance on Iranian oil. Saudi Arabia, happy to help undercut its regional rival, is promising to increase its own oil production to fill in the gaps. Russia, far from a reliable Iranian ally despite its previous refusal to support US sanctions, is similarly seizing the opportunity to promote its own oil industry as an alternative to Iranian supplies. China and India, which together consume a third of Iran’s oil exports, have so far indicated their intentions to maintain trade ties with Iran, despite intense pressure from the United States. As Iran loses customers, the remaining importing nations are at a strategic advantage to force Iran to sell at even cheaper prices.
With oil exports accounting for fully half of the Iranian government’s revenue, the newly intensified sanctions, coupled with the EU oil embargo, contribute to the downward spiral of the Iranian economy. A recent spate of bankruptcies is directly tied to the new round of sanctions; meanwhile, foreign-owned factories, such as Hyundai and Peugeot, have caved to US pressure and agreed to shut down their manufacturing operations in Iran. Unemployment is already around twenty percent, and closer to thirty percent for people under thirty years old. The value of the Iranian currency, the rial, has plummeted vis-a-vis the dollar, and inflation has soared into the double digits: 22.5 percent for 2011, with even higher estimates for 2012. Inflation this dramatic affects all classes of Iranian society, as people’s ability to purchase goods and services, save money, or live off fixed incomes rapidly diminishes.
Sanctions as Collective Punishment
Iranians are feeling the effects of intensified sanctions as they shop for essentials, fill prescriptions for medicines, and look for work. The sanctions have seriously impeded imports of food staples such as rice and palm oil, as regional suppliers, such as Malaysia, India, and Ukraine, cancel shipments because sanctions now prohibit the processing of payments. As this squeeze on supply continues, the cost of many basic foodstuffs has increased by fifty to two hundred percent. Rice—a staple in Iranian households—jumped from two dollars a kilo last year to five dollars now.
These sanctions amount to nothing less than collective punishment for a population already suffering under the effects of internally imposed austerity measures, economic mismanagement, and police-state repression. According to testimonials gathered by women’s rights activists in Tehran, medicines for illnesses such as asthma, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and other chronic diseases are either in short supply, completely unavailable, or no longer affordable even when supplies can be found. According to one pharmacist, “People with life threatening illnesses such as cancer can no longer afford to pay for the injections, so they either delay them or, mostly among poorer communities, totally forgo treatment.”
Children also suffer from sanctions. As economic conditions deteriorate, children have to leave school to help support their families. A thirty-five-year old woman explained that her husband’s wages working as a porter in the bazaar no longer cover the family’s basic needs. When her husband insisted their son quit school to work, she explained, “I beat myself and cried so much that he finally relented and agreed to let our son go to school, provided that he works after school.”
Women are often the most victimized by sanctions because, as a group, they are the most economically vulnerable. Women have a harder time finding jobs, are among the first to get laid off, and have fewer workplace protections. As those primarily responsible for running their households, women face increased loads of stress trying to feed their families, obtain needed medication, and buy necessary goods amidst skyrocketing levels of inflation. A forty-five-year old housewife in Tehran reports, “In the last few months, I have bought very little protein such as meat and poultry and have also refrained from buying any clothes for the children.” At the micro-level of household economies, women bear the larger burden for managing their families’ survival. In Iran, as in all societies, increased militarism and violence at the global and national levels exacerbates inequalities between men and women. As societies become more militarized, so do the very citizens living within them; as fear, anxiety, and stress rise in the lives of ordinary people, so do patriarchal and violent responses to conflict and hardship in intimate life.
A Feminist Response to Sanctions
The history of US-led sanctions against Iran shows us that they actually strengthen the regime that they purportedly target. Even as sanctions single out the Revolutionary Guards, whose primary function is as the repressive strong arm of the state, they allow the Guards to behave like a mafia controlling lucrative black and grey markets. This contributes to the further impoverishment of Iranian people. At the same time, the Iranian government has used US aggression and sanctions to justify the extraordinary repression that it has unleashed on Iranian labor, civil society, and activist groups through mass arrests, suppression of public dissent, imprisonment, torture, and execution.
In an effort to present itself as a bulwark against US intervention in the Muslim world, Iran rhetorically spins its ability to withstand sanctions as a moral victory against imperialism, while quietly moving forward with its neoliberal economic policies, ever-increasing militarization, and suppression of opposition at home. Just as in the Iraqi case, US-led sanctions make grassroots democratic dissent much more difficult for ordinary Iranians living in Iran. At the same time, the Iranian government has only tightened its control on the flow of wealth and information in the country. In the conflict between empire and dictatorship, there is a great need for a third way beyond the militaristic dance of macabre state-led politics as usual.
As feminists and anti-war activists, we believe it is ordinary people inside Iran who have the right to determine the direction and future of their society. We support the efforts of groups like the Iran-based Change for Equality, which began publishing a series of Women Against War videos on 8 March 2012 for International Women’s Day. It is with these and other activists from the labor and student movements in Iran that we stand in solidarity for a peaceful, just, and feminist alternative to all the options on the table.