When signed in July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was lauded as a historic diplomatic achievement for the signatories of the accord: Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union. The JCPOA stipulated limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the removal of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, and notable international think tanks, senior diplomats, academics and media personalities talked of it as a technically sound agreement with robust verification procedures involving the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In May 2018, US President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA and reinstated all the nuclear-related sanctions the US had committed to lift as part of the deal. The Middle East has been in turmoil in the interim and concerned observers have warned against the possibility of a military showdown between Iran and the United States. A lot has been said in the media about the unilateral de-certification of the Iran deal by President Trump and its implications for multilateral diplomacy, international norms and global non-proliferation. Since exiting the nuclear deal, the US officials have sporadically offered fresh talks with Iran to conclude a new deal; however, Iranian authorities have firmly rejected new negotiations while hard-hitting sanctions are in place.
The US sanctions target Iran’s oil and petrochemical products’ exports, banking and insurance sectors, aviation industry, maritime navigation, Iran’s purchase of US currency, Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals and tens of individuals in Iran’s armed forces, as well as people connected to Iran’s nuclear program. These sanctions, as confirmed by the UN special rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures, have had a detrimental impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Iranian citizens and violated their basic human rights. However, as long as the two governments don’t come to agreement over an exit strategy, the situation is unlikely to change for better.
Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at California State University, Fresno. He has written extensively on Iran’s foreign policy and sociopolitical developments. His latest book is “Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of ‘Tough Diplomacy’”. Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Prof. Sasan Fayazmanesh to discuss the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran deal and the human toll of the US sanctions against Tehran. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Tensions are running high between Iran and the United States and the proponents of war are hopeful that a military confrontation takes place between the two rivals. Do you blame the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 for the emergence of the current crisis?
A: The immediate cause of the recent crisis is the current US administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This agreement, which was reached between Iran and the P5+1 – five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany – in 2015, curtailed Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for lifting all nuclear-related sanctions. Once the Trump administration decided not to abide by the JCPOA, the agreement fell apart and we reached the current crisis.
But, a more interesting question is how did the withdrawal, the imposition of all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, and the current predicament happen so fast and so easily? The answer to that question requires a more in-depth analysis, which is beyond the scope of this interview. But such an analysis must address some of the following questions. How is it possible that in an advanced capitalist economy in the 21st century, an individual such as Donald Trump can become president? How is it conceivable that such an individual can, acting on a whim and with impunity, overturn international agreements and treaties? How is it possible that powerful individuals in this country, and other countries, who do realize the gravity of the situation, not stand up to Trump? And as far as the JCPOA is concerned, what was wrong with this agreement that allowed it to crumble with the stroke of a pen? Why was the agreement crafted in such a way that made it possible for the US to leave the agreement without any cost to it? Why did Iran not insist that such an agreement be ratified by the US Congress? Why did Iran allow all non-nuclear-related sanctions, imposed on it for its “support for terrorism,” “violation of human rights,” and developing missile technology, remain intact?
Q: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was an international agreement supported by the UN Security Council. Have the other signatories of the accord been able to work to save it from collapsing after the US withdrawal? Did they do their best to make sure the outcome of two years of active diplomacy will be preserved?
A: The other signatories of the JCPOA, the so-called the P4+1, namely France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and Germany, have neither had the will nor the power to stand up to the US. This, of course, is an old story. In pursuing foreign policy, the US every so often behaves like a gangster. In order to get what it wants, it resorts to force, threats, arm-twisting, cajoling, bribery, etc. I have documented this behavior in my books and articles on sanctioning Iran. I have shown, in particular, how the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barak Obama managed to get the approval of members of the United Nations Security Council to impose multilateral sanctions on Iran. This included, among others, intimidating non-permanent members of the Security Council, as well as bribing Russia and China. For example, in summer 2009, the Obama administration was working hard to pass a UN Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran. In order to get the Russian vote, Obama offered the Russians a quid pro quo: in exchange for a deal on the expiring 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and postponing the US deployment of anti-missile systems in Europe, Russia would agree to impose harsher sanctions against Iran. Later, the Obama administration sweetened the deal by promising to drop the deployment of anti-missile systems in Europe altogether. Also, the Obama administration twisted China’s arms over its alleged currency manipulation, cajoled it and even threatened it financially to go along with sanctioning Iran. Both Russia and China fell in line and agreed to a new set of UN sanctions in 2010.
Of course, the previous US administrations did not need to do much to get their European allies to go along with sanctions. Imperial powers almost always stick together and follow the lead of their hegemon when it comes to punishing disobedient countries in the periphery.
What is different today is that while people like Bush and Obama made alliances to pursue their nefarious policies, Trump is lashing out against the old US allies, making pursuing a unified policy against Iran difficult. Furthermore, while the reprehensible policies of previous administrations were not translucent and needed to be deciphered, the aggressive policies of current administration are out in the open, easy for anyone to see.
Trump’s hostility towards European leaders, as well as the cost of US secondary sanctions to the Europeans, have caused some of them to come out in opposition to his Iran policies. However, this opposition has so far not gone beyond words. When it came to action, the Europeans failed to save the JCPOA. It took them many months to come up with some tools that were supposed to get around US secondary sanctions, such as the “special purpose vehicle” for trade with Iran or “instrument in support of trade exchanges”, INSTEX. Such tools have so far been ineffectual and have done nothing to stop the economic bleeding of Iran. Indeed, INSTEX, which was supposed to facilitate export of food and medicine to Iran, could not work because of US financial sanctions. The same can be said for Russia and China. They, too, have been all talk and no action. As a result, the JCPOA is for all practical purposes dead or, at best, on life support.
Q: From the point of view of international law, are the sanctions slapped on Iran by the United States since last May justifiable? Are the different world countries obliged to follow suit in cutting off their trade ties and business with Iran while the UN Security Council doesn’t back the new sanctions?
A: As I alluded to earlier, the previous US administrations pursued their policies of “maximum pressure” on Iran by passing, in addition to unilateral sanctions, multilateral sanctions, mainly through the United Nations. But, as I also suggested, the current administration does not feel the need to work with the European countries, or Russia and China, to pass new UN sanctions resolutions. Therefore, there is currently no set of multilateral sanctions against Iran and members of the United Nations are not obligated to abide by Trump’s sanctions and cut their business ties with Iran. But going back to the concept of a gangster, it is not necessary for the US to have international backing to pursue mobster-like policies. All that is needed is force, threats, intimidation, bribery, etc. to get what it wants. Long before the US exited the JCPOA and brought back all previous sanctions, foreign businesses had started to leave Iran, fearing what the US could do to them. Europe’s INSTEX, which was too little and too late, did nothing to alleviate the fears of foreign businesses.
Q: What’s your opinion on the human impact of the US sanctions against Iran and the suffering of ordinary citizens as a result of these punitive measures? Do the international organizations have a responsibility to alleviate the pressure the ordinary citizens undergo because of the sanctions?
A: Before the JCPOA became effective, Iran’s economy, despite all its potential, had a negative rate of growth and suffered from double digit unemployment and inflation rate, a severe case of what might be called “stagflation.” Stagflation deeply hurts ordinary people of a country, and it was so in the case of Iran. The JCPOA threw a lifeline to the people of Iran. Iran’s economy started to grow, and inflation subsided. Now, after the demise of the JCPOA, Iran’s economy is basically back to what it was before the agreement. According to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook of April 2019, Iran’s economy grew at the rate of –3.9% in 2018 and is projected to grow at the rate of –6.0% in 2019. According to the same source, consumer prices in Iran rose by 31.2% in 2018 and are projected to rise by 37.2% in 2019. The unemployment rate in Iran, the same source points out, was 13.9% in 2018 and is projected to be 15.4% in 2019. When you look at the same source and its data, you see no other oil producing country in the region that faces such a dreadful situation. Moreover, no oil producing country in the region has faced the currency volatility that Iran has experienced since the demise of the JCPOA. One can only conclude that the massive pain that the people of Iran are feeling is the result of sanctions that the world’s biggest gangster has imposed upon them.
But the US imposed sanctions on Iran are not just causing economic pain. They are affecting all aspects of human life in Iran, including health. There are, of course, many studies on the effect of these sanctions on the Iranian health situation. One such study appeared in 2018 in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management and on the website of the National Institutes of Health. It states the following result:
“The sanctions on Iran caused a fall of country’s revenues, devaluation of national currency, and increase of inflation and unemployment. These all resulted in deterioration of people’s overall welfare and lowering their ability to access the necessities of a standard life such as nutritious food, healthcare and medicine. Also, the sanctions on banking, financial system and shipment led to scarcity of quality lifesaving medicines. The impacts of sanctions were more immense on the lives of the poor, patients, women and children. Humanitarian exemptions did not protect Iranians from the adverse effects of sanctions.”
It concludes by saying: “Countries which imposed economic sanctions against Iran have violated Iranians’ right to health. International community should have predicted any probable humanitarian effects of sanctions and used any necessary means to prevent it.” Needless to say that the international community not only has not made any such predictions, it has done nothing to stop US aggressions towards Iran and to alleviate the pain and suffering of the Iranian people.
Q: How do you think the unilateral coercive measures and economic sanctions influence the ability of Iran to fight drug trafficking, considering that it is located next to the biggest producer of opium in the world?
A: I am not an expert in this area. But I have seen reports and complaints by Iranian government officials about the effect of sanctions on Iran’s attempts to combat drug trafficking that originates in Afghanistan. Following the JCPOA, Iran and European countries agreed to fight jointly drug trafficking. But, according to Iranian government officials, the Europeans not only failed to carry out their part of the bargain but allowed the US sanctions to make Iran’s own work very difficult. In December 2018, Iran’s President Rouhani issued a warning about the consequences of US sanctions and European inaction in fighting drug trafficking. In particular, he pointed out that the final destinations of these drugs are mostly Europe and America. Similar warnings were issued by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in June 2019. And lately, the head of the Iranian organization that is in charge of combating drug trafficking gave details concerning the rapid rate of growth of drugs in Afghanistan since the year 2000, the Europeans’ inaction, and the US sanctions that hinder Iran’s own action. Some examples that he gave include Iran’s inability to obtain equipment needed to fight drug traffickers, such as night goggles, X-ray machines and other electronic gadgets.
Q: JCPOA was not the only multilateral accord that President Donald Trump exited. In your view, what are the reasons for the US President’s disregard for multilateralism and his frequent use of unilateral coercive measures including the threat of force, economic sanctions and leaving international arrangements and treaties? Doesn’t this style of governance undermine global order?
A: The governing style of the current administration, its disregard for international laws and treaties, and its aggressive and reckless policies, are symptomatic of the kind of people that currently run the executive branch of this country. Some of Donald Trump former aids have reportedly described him as an “idiot,” “dope,” “moron,” “unhinged” or as an individual who has the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.” Unfortunately, I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist and am unable to render a professional opinion about the mental state of the current US president. But given the behavior of Donald Trump, many of the above adjectives seem to be justified.
Trump repeats the same lie even though he knows that what he is saying is false. For example, on July 11, 2019, he tweeted the following: “Iran has long been secretly ‘enriching,’ in total violation of the terrible 150 Billion Dollar deal made by John Kerry and the Obama Administration. Remember, that deal was to expire in a short number of years. Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!” As some reporters pointed out, all three allegations of Trump were false. But Trump already knew that these claims are untrue; he had repeated them before and had been told that they are wrong.
Only an irrational and unhinged individual would consciously repeat the same lies, especially when such lies can lead to a disaster. And if you combine this irrationality with such traits as impulsiveness, racism, prejudice, xenophobia, and jingoism, then you get a combustible mixture that can threaten the whole world. The most terrifying aspect of the current situation is that Trump is surrounded by some individuals who share many of his own traits. One such individual is, of course, the National Security Advisor John Bolton, who according to Trump himself if left unleashed would “take on the whole world at one time.” Bolton, who played a substantial role in the invasion of Iraq, has been trying to wage a war on Iran for decades. And given the prevailing madness in the White House, he might succeed this time. Even more terrifying is that the main advisors to people such as Bolton, and Secretary of State Pompeo, are rabid, scary groups such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an Israeli lobby group whose sole purpose is to start a war with Iran.
Q: At the moment, the Department of State, Department of Commerce and Department of Treasury oversee economic sanctions against nearly 30 countries. Has the United States government been able to achieve its goals through these wide-ranging sanctions or has it merely contributed to the plight and suffering of average citizens in the target countries?
A: I am afraid I cannot fully answer this question. I do not know the exact case of each country that you have in mind. I also do not believe that generalizing the concept of sanctions, and trying to assess their overall effects, are very useful, as I have explained in some of my books and articles on sanctions. The case that falls within the purview of my expertise is, of course, Iran. The US has sanctioned Iran for forty years, using what I have referred to as a “menu option,” an array of allegations. The allegations have included Iran’s support for international terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction, developing intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads, opposing the Israeli peace process, destabilizing Afghanistan, harboring Al-Qaeda, lacking democracy, being ruled by unelected individuals, violating human rights, not protecting the rights of women, not being forward-looking and modern, etc. But the entire purpose of this menu option has been to replace the existing, disobedient government in Iran with one that is friendly to the US and Israel. The economic war that has been waged against Iran for four decades has tortured the people of Iran but has so far not brought about the result that the US and Israel have been hoping for.
Q: What is the most prudent and smart way through which Iran can resist the US campaign of extensive economic sanctions to protect the rights of its citizens?
A: It would be presumptuous of someone like me, who lives outside of Iran and is not suffering from the effects of the US economic war, to propose ways of resisting this war. All I can say is that so far the people of Iran have acted sensibly in the face of foreign threats. Every time that these threats have intensified, they have unified and warded them off. When the threats have lessened, they have turned their attention to home, towards putting their own house in order.
This interview was first published by the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence.