Sanctions are War

MAPA News & Analysis, May 2020

Protester’s sign decries sanctions, “a silent war”. Photo: Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2013
Protester’s sign decries sanctions, “a silent war”. Photo: Campaign for Peace and Democracy

by Tanuja Joshi

Sanctions are often presented as valuable, non-violent tools of foreign policy. The argument goes: Sanctions allow countries to put pressure on other governments or individuals without engaging in military warfare or harming civilians. To the headline-skimming, casual observer, sanctions may seem like an acceptable, even benign, tool of foreign policy. No bombs, no boots on the ground, no one dies, right? Nothing could be farther from the truth.

What are sanctions and how are they used?
Sanctions are tools of war. They are, for the most part, economic penalties imposed on a foreign government that can take a multitude of different forms: trade embargoes or limitations, reduction or withdrawal of foreign aid, withdrawal of diplomatic relations, limitations on allowed business with other countries, reduction of allowed travel, and more. They are designed to weaken a country’s economy to such an extent that either the government is forced make legislative change or the people are forced to rise up against the government and demand a change in leadership.

In other words, the purpose of sanctions is to cause mass suffering of innocent civilians to force legislative or regime change. It is to deliberately attack another country by causing a slow, drawn-out decline into economic turmoil rather than addressing policy differences through diplomatic channels. Countries that use sanctions in foreign policy consciously make the decision to force collective punishment on innocent civilians as a means of getting their way.

Sanctions don’t actually work
Putting humanitarian and moral concerns aside for a moment, the simple fact of the matter is that sanctions don’t actually work as tools to effect change. Currently, the United States maintains either broad or targeted sanctions on 22 different countries, several of which have been in place for two decades or more. The United States’ decades-long sanctions on countries such as Iran, Cuba, and North Korea show that governments wishing to stand up to the US and other Western powers will continue to find ways to do so despite economic hardship.

Those imposing sanctions to push people to act against their government seem not to consider that when a country’s economy is weakened, civilians actually become more dependent on their government for financial support and goods and are less likely to take action against it.

Sanctions also have been shown to be ineffective as a deterrent against continued or future military action. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s, the United Nations Security Council imposed broad economic sanctions on Iraqi trade and financial transactions outside of those needed for humanitarian aid. Clearly the sanctions were ineffective; Saddam Hussein continued further military escalation, eventually leading to the Gulf War. Furthermore, it is estimated that between 1990 and 1998, around 576,000 Iraqi children died from disease and malnutrition as a direct result of food and medicine supply shortages caused by the UN sanctions. When reports of these figures first came out, then US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright said on CBS’s 60 Minutes “I think this is a very hard choice, but…we think the price is worth it.” That infamous remark is a chilling example of the inhumanity of the use of sanctions and the immorality of those who impose them.  

Sanctions, Mass Suffering, and Coronavirus
Despite the global coronavirus pandemic, the United States is not only maintaining its sanctions campaigns, it is escalating them. In early April, the Alibaba Group and Jack Ma Foundation tried to donate 100,000 masks to the Cuban people. Cuban officials say however the intended carrier of the masks, Avianca Airlines, (which despite being a Colombian-based entity) declined to carry the aid because one of its major shareholders is a U.S.-based company subject to the trade embargo on Cuba. Less than one week later, Cuba was denied all future access to two of its most regular suppliers of ventilators, the Swiss-based company IMTMedical AG and the US-based Acutronic. Both companies announced their parent company, US-based Vyaire Medical Inc. told them to end all commercial relations with Cuba. Cuba overall has been able to control the coronavirus comparatively well, due to a nationalized healthcare system that mobilized various types of preventive measures earlier than most other countries. However, despite the country’s rapid response and having one of the highest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world, its doctors are suffering from resource shortages as access to basic supplies becomes more limited due to US sanctions.

Before Covid-19, the impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy was devastating. Today it is borderline genocidal. At the time of this writing, Iran has more than 88,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 5,500 deaths. It is the Middle East’s epicenter of the virus and is reporting more than 1,000 new cases daily. For years, Iran’s doctors and hospitals have not been able to provide adequate healthcare to the Iranian people due to the sanctions’ effects on supply chains and quality of goods.

While the United States government claims there are exceptions for medical supplies, humanitarian aid, and food, it does not admit the impact these sanctions have on actually getting those supplies into the country. The Central Bank of Iran is currently under such harsh sanctions, it is virtually impossible to make financial transactions to or from any Iranian bank. This has made it incredibly difficult for groups not only to acquire medical supplies, food, and other raw materials, but to find international vendors who are willing to take the financial risk of engaging with Iranian companies out of fear of retributive action from the United States. Some countries such as France, Germany, and the UK have recently utilized specific mechanisms to ship a small number of supplies to Iran, but the quantity is not enough to make significant impacts on the current battle against the virus, nor will it address the damage that has already been done. 

US Escalation and the 2020 Elections
Even more concerning is the fact that the United States continues to impose additional sanctions on Iran during the coronavirus pandemic. On March 18th, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new round of sanctions that make it even more difficult for Iran to export oil. In defense of the sanctions, Pompeo claimed the additional sanctions will deprive the regime of critical income from its petrochemical industry and further Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation. While he is accurate about the enforced isolation, he did not acknowledge what that actually means: intense and escalating human suffering during a time of global crisis. 

Those invested in the Democratic presidential primary should note that presidential hopeful Joe Biden has refused to call for a temporary reduction or lifting of sanctions to address Iran’s coronavirus crisis. In a cowardly, empty statement, Biden claimed America should be the first to offer assistance when people are hurting, but merely called for clearer government guidelines on allowable humanitarian exemptions and the streamlining of channels for banking. He did not address any of the current barriers that are limiting the ability to get supplies into Iran. He even went so far as to acknowledge the role that US sanctions are playing in limiting Iran’s response to the coronavirus, but stopped short of calling for any meaningful action to address the sanctions themselves. As someone who is a prominent figure in current American politics, he had the opportunity to show true leadership and rise above political differences to address a global humanitarian crisis. All Joe Biden showed is he is just another war hawk willing to allow mass human suffering in the name of American exceptionalism.

What can be done to stop sanctions?

The outcry against economic sanctions during a global pandemic has been widespread. Pope Francis declared his opposition on Easter Sunday, saying the sanctions, “make it difficult for countries on which they have been imposed to provide adequate support to their citizens.” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for the sanctions to be waived saying, “this is a time for solidarity, not exclusion.” The US Peace Council is gathering thousands of signatures from across the globe to petition the US government and UN to end coercive sanctions and military interventions. But what can an average person do right here in Massachusetts?

Several organizations have joined together in coalition to form Lift the Sanction Massachusetts. In the past month they have organized a series of webinars to educate the public on the effects of sanctions, especially the hindering effect these policies have on these countries’ ability to fight the COVID-19 epidemic. These educational programs have focused on Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba. In honor of May Day, the coalition has joined with other peace and justice organizations to organize a car rally in the greater Boston area on Friday, May 1st. Car protests are a safe way for people to maintain social distancing while still engaging in activism. Building off of the car protest, Lift the Sanctions Massachusetts will host a day of action on Monday, May 4th to put pressure on our representatives in Congress to take action themselves. Ending the destructive system of sanctions that has been growing for decades will not be easy, but it is necessary work. US sanctions are simply war by other means and they won’t end unless we demand it. 

For more information about the car protest or phone/email day, please send an email to or call 978-604-1307. 

—Tanuja Joshi is an activist focused on building global solidarity for liberation against imperialism, militarism, colonialism, and all other forms of oppression, wherever they occur.