Sanctions: War that Doesn’t Speak its Name

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.’

Iranians are also dying in other ways.   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 twentieth century it became an established tenet of ‘modern’ warfare that the political and military objectives of war could no longer be achieved simply by defeating an opposing army on the ‘battlefield’, but on directing military force against the enemy economy or ‘infrastructure’,   or in order to break the will or ‘morale’ of the civilian population to continue with the war and support   a particular government or regime.

From World War II to the ‘low-intensity wars’ of the Cold War, in the two Iraq wars and the murky battlefields of the ‘war on terror’,   these principles have been put into practice in various military and quasi-military means that include the wholesale bombing of cities,   the ‘surgical’ bombings of Iraq during the two Gulf wars, and the use of death squads and other forms of state terror in counterinsurgency campaigns and ‘wars on terror.’

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 have to declare that this is what is actually taking place.     The use of the sanctions instrument as a form of undeclared war against civilians first emerged during the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War.

In Invisible War: the United States and the Iraq Sanctions (2010) 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 that ‘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 so far as 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, for those who wanted to look.    There was 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, and added that ‘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’, or at least some of its members therefore,   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 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 easily ignored, evaded or blamed on the targeted government.

In effect, sanctions make it possible to wage war on civilians without ever saying so explicitly.   To democratic governments that pride themselves on their humanitarianism and their determination to limit ‘collateral damage’, this is an extremely valuable instrument of coercion and pressure.

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’.