Notes From the Margins…

Sanctions: War that Doesn’t Speak its Name

  • January 14, 2013
  • by

In today’s Guardian, Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Deghan report on the impact on ordinary Iranians of sanctions imposed by the ‘international community’ to pressure the regime into abandoning its nuclear program.    The article describes how

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by the unintended consequences of international sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs.

Borger and Deghan note that

Western governments have built waivers into the sanctions regime aimed at persuading Tehran to curb its nuclear programme in an effort to ensure that essential medicines get through, but those waivers are not functioning, as they conflict with blanket restrictions on banking, as well as bans on “dual-use” chemicals which might have a military application

As a result, according to Naser Naghdi, the director general of Darou Pakhsh, the country’s biggest pharmaceutical company:

“There are patients for whom a medicine is the different between life and death. What is the world doing about this? Are Britain, Germany, and France thinking about what they are doing? If you have cancer and you can’t find your chemotherapy drug, your death will come soon. It is as simple as that.”

Last year the New York Times reported that more than 1,700 Iranian airline passengers and crew had died because Iranian passenger planes were not able to get spare parts, due to sanctions imposed by the United States dating back to the Clinton era – whose effects have been compounded by those imposed more recently.

The Guardian insists that the lack of medicines is an ‘unintended’ consequence of sanctions, and that both the EU and the US are looking into ways of strengthening ‘ safeguards for at-risk Iranians’, but it is difficult to take such claims seriously.

In the past twenty years, western states have developed a new and – from a PR point of view, extremely attractive – means of waging war on civilians without explicitly having to declare that this is what is actually taking place.

In her account of sanctions imposed on Iraq following the first Gulf War Joy Gordon attributes the lack of medicines and other crucial goods to the fact that

The United States insisted that Iraq seek permission for each item, rather than approving categories of permitted goods, and the United States insisted as well that each item be approved on a case-by-case basis, without the use of precedent or criteria for approval…Because of the consensus decision-making rule, each approval required the agreement of the entire committee.   Any single member of the [multinational] committee could unilaterally block the purchase of any contract for humanitarian goods by withholding its approval.

These procedures resulted in frequently interminable delays, with disastrous consequences for the Iraqi population.   By 2000, UNICEF calculated that 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died as a result of the war, malnutrition and curable diseases for which medicines were not available.

These consequences were so dire that Denis Halliday, assistant secretary general to the United Nations, resigned his post as co-ordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq in 1998 in protest at what he called “a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals.”

The British diplomat Carne Ross, who served as the UK’s Iran expert to the United Nations during the 1990s and later resigned in protest at the 2003 Iraq war, similarly declared “In many ways, the sanctions on the Iraqi people were worse than the war because the economy was taken back decades and the health service deteriorated massively.”

This not how sanctions were depicted by the governments that were imposing them.   In sofaras the negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions were recognized at all, they were blamed on the corruption or negligence of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Occasionally, a different logic could be perceived, such as Madeleine Albright’s notorious “the price, we think the price is worth it” response to an interviewer who pointed out that more civilians were dying as a result of sanctions than had died during Hiroshima.

There was the senior US Air Force officer, who suggested that Iraqi civilians might be complicit in the continuation of Saddam’s regime, since ‘The definition of innocents is a little unclear.   They do live here, and ultimately the people have some control over what goes on in their country.’

From the point of view of the ‘international community’, Iraq civilians were being punished in order to ‘contain’ Saddam,  and sanctions also had the more longterm and amorphous objective of pressuring a ‘guilty’ population to overthrow the Ba’athist regime.

The ‘area bombing’ of German and Japanese cities during World War II was intended to bring about a similar objective.   But the beauty of sanctions, from the point of view of the handful of countries that are powerful enough to impose them,  is that their impact is not immediately visible, and can easily be ignored or blamed on the government they are (indirectly) aimed at.

In effect, sanctions make it possible to wage war on civilians without saying so explicitly.

And that is why you can bet that no matter how bad things get in Iran, someone, somewhere will have already concluded that the cost is ‘worth it’.



You may also Like

Ventilator Blues

Ventilator Blues

March 21, 2020
The Wars of Ralph Peters

The Wars of Ralph Peters

September 06, 2017

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  • No events

Recent Comments