Sanctions are a form of war

This is an extract from a discussion document prepared by Yassamine Mather and Mark Fischer for the February 28 steering committee of Hands Off the People of Iran. Hopi is launching its anti-sanctions campaign in the House of Commons on March 16

Recent claims that Iran has now built up a stockpile of enriched uranium sufficient for “one nuclear bomb” have coincided with the invitation to rightwinger Benjamin Netanyahu to form the next Israeli government. Whatever the veracity of the reports about uranium stockpiles, tensions have been considerably raised.1

The theocratic regime has become noticeably more cagey about supplying information to bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. Apparently, “as Iran’s nuclear programme has accelerated, its cooperation with the IAEA has diminished” and this - combined with the fact that expert predictions on the timetable for Iran producing enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb have been brought forward - makes the situation dangerous.2

Netanyahu starts from “the assumption that the Iranian government is run by genocidal maniacs, who would welcome Armageddon”. However, most observers - including Israeli-based pundits - dismiss this.3 In one sense, whether Iran has the material to build a bomb or not is irrelevant. Uranium enrichment represents only one of several hurdles that have to be crossed before Iran becomes nuclear-weapons-capable. Others include the availability of a micro-timed electronic trigger and weaponisation (enabling the device to be delivered to a target through a missile or bomb). Currently Iran is in no position to deliver such a weapon and in fact no-one claims that it is.

In real terms, therefore, the significance of speculation over Iran’s military capabilities is political rather than military. Despite the reactionary hysteria of Netanyahu and those on the social-imperialist ‘left’ who echo him, there is no immediate prospect of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. But Israel is adamant that it will not tolerate an Iran that has reached “break-out capacity” - a level that reportedly has now been attained. As Mark Fitzpatrick of the Institute of Strategic Studies puts it, “The real question is: can Israel live with this?”4

A variant of the ‘Japanese’ scenario may kick in. That is, Iran stops just short of the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon - but only by a month or so. Thus, the theocracy will be able to pose as a nuclear-armed power by dint of the fact that it is just a step away from actually being one. In the event of any increase in regional tension or bellicose noises then directed towards Tehran, it may well be tempted to take that final step. Logically, therefore, even a suspension of the country’s nuclear programme at this late stage will not significantly ease tensions with the west or Israel.

Crucially from the point of view of anti-imperialists, the new information on the Iranian nuclear industry’s level of development dramatically increases the likelihood of a swift ‘diplomatic initiative’ from Obama - that is, a new swathe of sanctions.

The Financial Times gives three reasons for the efficacy of sanctions under today’s conditions, the most important of which is “the collapse in world oil prices, making Iran more vulnerable to economic sanctions”. Secondly, the paper suggests: “Mr Obama can make a credible offer of much better relations with the US. And, third, Mr Obama’s popularity overseas will make it easier for him to line up international support for sanctions.”5

Sanctions and war

It is wrong to mechanically counterpose sanctions to military action. In themselves, sanctions are a form of ‘soft war’ and often pave the way the way for armed aggression of one sort or another. The tactic of laying siege to a town or village has played a crucial role in military campaigns since humanity has been fighting wars - ie, conflicts on an extended scale. A blockade imposes hunger, demoralisation and desperation onto the besieged community and in this way softens up the ruling regime either for external military attack or overthrow from within.

Thus, it is ominous that the severity and extent of sanctions against Iran have dramatically increased over the last 12 months. The fact that a new round was being promised by the US president-elect - even before the ratcheting up of tensions over the past week - is deeply worrying. The threatened ban on the import of refined fuel would be particularly disastrous for masses of Iranian people, given the country’s inability to produce it.

The example of Iraq should act as a stark warning. Some researchers estimate that over a million Iraqis died as a result of the 1990 UN-imposed sanctions on the Saddam regime - with a disproportionally high number of children amongst them. Comments at the time from US observers made it clear that an important purpose of the sanctions for Washington was to make life unbearable for the Iraq masses, to encourage a revolt against the regime.6

Sanctions hit ordinary workers the most, not the regime or the rich. Effectively, they disorganise the working class. Its fighting energies are squandered in the desperate day-to-day struggle simply to survive. In this way, the operative effect of sanctions is often to increase the power of a targeted regime over the mass of people.

Iran’s low-level conventional military purchases do not seem to have been affected by existing restrictions. And, while its WMD efforts may have been slowed by sanctions, currently it seems that Russia, India, China and North Korea have supplied missiles as well as chemical, biological and nuclear materials that can be used for WMD purposes. As Gary Samore (expected to be appointed very soon to the Obama administration, where he will be responsible for non-proliferation), noted in a speech in December last year, “Moscow and Beijing basically don’t share our concern about Iran’s nuclear programme …”7

Control of Iranian dual-use imports is difficult to achieve through sanctions, and high profit margins have resulted in non-cooperation by China and Russia on deterring access to WMD by Iran. Thus, Samore notes bluntly that there is “a growing sense in the region that Iran’s nuclear effort is unstoppable.”8


It is difficult to assess precisely the effect of sanctions on the lives of Iranians. The economy is in such a dire state that, even without the current levels of sanctions, the likelihood is that Iranians would still be facing mass unemployment (at present 25%), casualisation and the non-payment of wages at a time when inflation tears along at near 30%, according to even official figures.

What we can say is that the punitive impact of these measures could potentially be greater than that on Iraq. Unlike for that country, there are no exemptions for Iran or programmes such as ‘food for oil’ (May-April 1998). This entailed the UN secretary-general approving a distribution plan, based on $3.1 billion of ‘humanitarian’ allocation, followed by a new phase of the scheme. Despite this Iraqis died in their hundreds of thousands.

The early attempts of the Iranian government to offset the effects of sanctions by rapid expansion of the economy have backfired - they smacked of a degree of panic in any case. According to one of Ahmadinejad’s former advisers, “The government responded in my view to the sanctions, but it may have overreacted.”9

Growth was sought through deficit spending and expansion of money supply - policies designed to stimulate small businesses and create jobs. Some economists in Iran blame these measures for speculation in real estate and the shrinking value of the Iranian rial. The result - raging inflation - has exacerbated the poverty of the majority of society.

According to some merchants, prices of most goods have increased by 50% in the last four months. This, they report, results from the extra cost of doing business through Dubai and other third countries, instead of directly with the foreign manufacturers and distributors. Many such firms are wary of trade with Iran lest they come under the scrutiny of the US treasury department, which has started to aggressively target companies with links to America that also trade with Iran. “Now, doing business with anywhere other than China or Russia is too much of a pain,” according to one Iranian businessman.10

Let us highlight just two areas where sanctions are having real material effects on the lives of Iranians in the here and now.

Medical equipment

Hospitals in Iran are reporting a shortage of medical diagnostic kits and surgical apparatus as a direct result of sanctions blocking the import of ‘dual purpose’ equipment. These include the precision measuring devices vital for correct drug dosages, for example. Iranian doctors also report shortages of surgical equipment - including metal cutting and precision measurement tools - which will impact on surgical procedures and the use of incubators.

The UN sanctions of March-April 2008 specify restrictions on the import of laser and laser arrays. These are used extensively in medical treatment - and, not surprisingly, fall under the category of potentially ‘dual purpose’ equipment. A Japanese executive was arrested in 2006 for the alleged export to Iran of precision measuring medical tools that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

All manner of vital equipment has been blocked by the refusal of the US administration to grant licences for their export to Iran. Phoenix Biomedical acknowledges it shipped out surgical shunts - plastic tubes inserted between an artery and a vein for dialysis - which would have been refused an export licence. According to the journal Nature, it took four years for an Iranian lab to secure equipment for neuronal recordings.

Human embryonic stem cells may potentially revolutionise biomedicine through their use as a renewable source of cells for regenerative medicine. However, according to an Iranian scientist working in this field, “Due to the inability of Iranian biomedical scientists to purchase directly from the manufacturers, the cost of purchasing supplies in Iran is typically much more expensive than prices in the US or western Europe.

In addition, the quality of these products is often compromised, to a degree that some scientists perform their experiments on multiple, independently obtained batches of reagents to ensure that the products are authentic.”11

Additionally, because of US sanctions, Iranian medical researchers are frequently refused visas to other countries and are therefore unable to attend conferences or engage in meaningful collaboration.

Air travel

Internal flights in Iran have become notoriously unsafe because of the increasing difficulty of maintaining aircraft to the necessary standard. According to reports from Iranian news agencies, 17 planes have crashed over the past 25 years, killing approximately 1,500 people. It is certain that at least some of these are attributable to sanctions.

For example, in February 2002, despite fine weather and no reported problems, all 117 people on board a passenger plane died when it crashed into snow-covered mountains in the west of the country. The BBC reported: “Under US sanctions, Iran has had difficulty obtaining spare parts for its ageing fleet of Boeing aircraft purchased before the 1979 Islamic revolution and relies increasingly on planes leased from the former Soviet Union. Iran has said the US stance on spare parts endangers the lives of innocent passengers.”12

Specifically, the US denies aircraft manufacturer Boeing the freedom to sell aircraft to Iranian aviation companies, leading the International Civil Aviation Organisation to warn that sanctions against Iran are placing civilian lives in danger. Sanctions imposed in April 2008 also specify a ban on the sale of data based referenced navigation systems, inhibiting efficient air traffic control.


1. Financial Times February 24.
2. Financial Times February 25.
3. Financial Times February 24.
4. Our emphasis Financial Times February 25.
5. Financial Times February 24.
6. In 1991, Paul Lewis wrote in the New York Times: “Ever since the trade embargo was imposed on Aug. 6, after the invasion of Kuwait, the United States has argued against any premature relaxation in the belief that by making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people it will eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power.”
7. Financial Times February 24.
8. Ibid.
9. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100335646&ft=1&f=1004
10. articles.latimes.com/2008/jan/20/world/fg-sanctions20
11. isg-mit.org/projects-storage/StemCell/stem_cell_iran.pdf
12. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1815680.stm

No to sanctions

Monday March 16, 18.00

Launch of anti-sanctions campaign, House of Commons, SW1.
Speakers include John McDonnell (Labour MP), Jenny Jones (Green Party London assembly member).

Organised by Hands Off the People of Iran: www.hopoi.org