Squeezing Iran

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During the culmination of the American presidential debates the world bore witness to a bizarre, but revealing, foreign policy battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Who would befriend Israel more? Who would better defeat "the terrorists"? Who would impose the most crippling sanctions on Iran? Writing in the Guardian the following day, Gary Younge perceptibly broke it to the international community that, "Obama's just not that into you".

In the course of the debate, Israel was mentioned 36 times, Iran 47 times, sanctions 17 times and crippling (because sanctions must, of course, be crippling) seven times. Palestine and the Arab Spring were each mentioned only once.

Despite much focus on whether Israel will launch military strikes on Iran (or goad the US into taking military action), sanctions are already taking a huge toll on ordinary Iranians.

US sanctions on Iran have been in place since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 which overthrew the Shah, then the US's foremost military ally in the Middle East. The impact of the sanctions, combined with a shift within Iran towards more neoliberal economic policies has been devastating. In 1977 the resource-rich Iranian economy was twice the size of that of South Korea. By 2011 the South Korean economy was three times larger.

The most recent sanctions, however, have been imposed by the European Union from 2006 onwards. In July 2012 the EU agreed to what was proudly announced as their "toughest ever" sanctions: an oil embargo on Iran and a freezing of the assets of the Iranian central bank. Before the sanctions the EU had been buying a fifth of Iran's oil exports.

As a result, Iran has spiralled into its worst financial crisis since the early 1980s. The national currency has hit an all-time low and the price of staple goods has rocketed.
To put this into perspective, in 1977 one US dollar was worth 70 Iranian rials. By the start of 2012 one US dollar bought 18,000 rials. And two months after the imposition of the new sanctions in July, one dollar bought 37,500 rials. At the beginning of October this led to major riots on the streets of Tehran.

Although the oil industry makes up 80 percent of Iranian export revenue, it's not the only place where sanctions are having an impact. Those bearing the brunt include patients and hospitals reliant on medicines imported from abroad. The Haemophilia Society of Iran recently held sanctions responsible for the deaths of thousands of children.

Indeed their impact is well documented. Those imposed on Iraq by the US between 1990 and 2003 led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. The US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, infamously called it "a price worth paying". Similarly, in a frank admission about the blockade of Gaza in 2006, Israeli official Dov Weisglass said, "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."

Another popular claim by proponents of sanctions is that even if they do impact on ordinary people, they will help to force regime change. In a useful recent article in the Foreign Policy journal Iranian oppositionists Mohammad Sadeghi Esfahlani and Jamal Abdi picked this myth apart. On the contrary, they argued, sanctions serve to strengthen the grip leaders have on power.

With upcoming presidential elections in 2013, the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini has already used the sanctions to attempt to abolish the position of president altogether. Conversely, those who were involved in the opposition Green Movement in 2009 are now preoccupied with day to day survival, rather than enlisting in any struggle for political change.

And yet while ordinary Iranians are faced with an increasingly bleak winter, the EU has just endorsed a controversial trade agreement easing relations with one country in the Middle East that continues to develop nuclear weapons and break international agreements: Israel.

The hypocrisy at the heart of international sanctions policy is plain to see. That sanctions cause mass human suffering is not some by-product or unpleasant added extra - it is a part of their very design.