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Revisiting the Flawed Policy of Sanctioning Iran: How Sanctions Hurt the Reformers

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The recent devastating earthquake in Iran has brought the issue of the U.S.-EU sanctions on Iran back to the forefront, where a renewed discussion of the aim and impact of those sanctions is sorely needed.

On August 11, 2012, twin earthquakes in Iran's northwest region ravaged villages, claimed the lives of over 300 people, and left thousands more injured and homeless. In theory, American sanctions on Iran, which are designed to forestall Iran's nuclear program, made it illegal for American NGOs to join the relief effort by sending aid.

A coalition of U.S.-based organizations successfully petitioned the Obama Administration and gained a temporary general license to send aid. The wider problem of the sanctions and their impact on civil society, however, persists.

The sanctions aim to make it too costly for the Iranian government to continue its nuclear program. The nuclear program, the Iranians claim, is for civilian purposes only which, if true, is legally afforded to them under the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The sanctions, however, have not stopped nor slowed down Iran's drive to acquire nuclear technology. In reality, the Iranian populace has borne the brunt of the sanctions which has slowed down their drive to put pressure on the government from below.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal published an important piece that highlighted the crippling impact of the sanctions on Iranian private businesses that are completely disconnected from the government and the nuclear program. These are the peers of the cherished American "job creators" that both President Obama and Mitt Romney champion in this year's U.S. presidential elections. In Iran, however, the sanctions are crippling private business, increasing the unemployment rate and intensifying inflation, all of which jeopardize the economic livelihoods of thousands of ordinary Iranians.

This was not entirely unpredictable. A quick glance at Iran's neighbor to the west, Iraq, and critical and instructive parallels can be drawn. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, 1990, the U.N.-imposed and U.S.-enforced sanctions brought Iraq's economy and its population to their knees. Iraq's middle class, which was historically known for serving as the country's incubator of secularism, was decimated. Middle class Iraqis who could afford to leave the country did so in droves and the ones who opted to stay became impoverished. As the middle class in Iraq became marginalized, so did any chance of a viable homegrown movement to pressure the government from below. Indeed, it is thought that the middle class is historically the harbinger of change as the poor, generally, are too impoverished to agitate for change and the rich are too inclined to defend the status quo as it benefits them.

Thus, as the sanctions wreaked havoc on the lives of ordinary Iraqis, thereby preventing the emergence of a viable homegrown movement to exert any pressure from below, Saddam Hussein's regime remained entrenched throughout the 13-year sanctions period. Furthermore, despite the ruinous sanctions, the U.S. and UK administrations believed him to be in the process of developing an elaborate nuclear and chemical weapons program. This was the now infamous "smoking gun" argument given by then-President Bush and then-Premier Blair that justified an Anglo-American invasion force that brought the autocracy crumbling down.

The Iraqi case study illustrates that the ill-fated sanctions imposed on Iran are not without precedent. That is not to say that the U.S. and its allies should abandon the sanctions strategy regarding Iran in favor of an Iraqi-style solution by using the military option. On the contrary, an attack on Iran, a country far larger than Iraq both in terms of geography and population and far more advanced in terms of military preparedness, would ensure a bigger disaster than the monumental catastrophe and extraordinary trauma of the Iraq War.

As in neighboring Iraq, the ever-expanding sanctions on Iran are disempowering the very people capable of pushing for a change at the top -- the middle class. The once thriving opposition Green Movement, which burst onto the political scene with an unforgettable fervor in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, is now reeling from both government repression from above and joint U.S.-EU sanctions from below. Yet, their fate need not be set in stone.

As Iranians suffer "the collateral damage" of a short-sighted and historically flawed policy, the victims of Iran's earthquake bring the specter of the sanctions to the fore, affording U.S. and EU leaders an opportunity to review their sanctions policy vis-à-vis those affected by them the most, the Iranian people, and decide a more humane path ahead. The Iranian people, the very people that can put real and lasting pressure on their government, are counting on such a change.

Pouya Alimagham is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan's history program. You can follow him at @iPouya.