As Iran became a global center of the pandemic now sweeping the world, how did the proudly compassionate United States respond? By announcing a new round of economic sanctions aimed at closing loopholes that might allow Iran to sell some of its oil. Iran is already the most heavily sanctioned country in history. Now it will have even less money to buy or make respirators, face masks, and other desperately needed medical equipment.
In the Western Hemisphere, few major countries face as great a potential disaster as Venezuela. Its public health system, crippled by years of sanctions, is woefully unprepared for what may be a wave of infection and death. The United States reacted not with help or even encouraging words, but with a bizarre decision to indict the president of Venezuela as a drug trafficker and offer $15 million to anyone who will deliver him to us. Then, just a few days later, we offered to ease sanctions if the president quits.
Even in the best of times, the American policy of using “maximum pressure” to cripple unfriendly countries was cruel and self-defeating. Today it is more so than ever.
For years the United States has promiscuously used the weapon formerly called blockade or embargo, now “economic sanctions.” Whenever we disapprove of something another country does, we slap it with sanctions. We sanction countries from Belarus to Zimbabwe, plus corporations, specific vessels and aircraft, and more than 6,000 individuals. Anyone who does business with any of them becomes a new target, subject to seizure of assets and other penalties.
For American politicians, imposing sanctions is a beloved pastime. Sanctions seem to be a way to punish an alleged evildoer, but short of war. There is no political price to pay because the effects of long-term sanctions unfold slowly and largely out of sight.
In fact, sanctions are a substitute for diplomacy, not war. They embody the fantasy that coercive pressure alone can make countries submit to America’s will. Long experience, notably with 60 years of fruitless American sanctions on Cuba, has proved the fallacy of that argument. Yet Washington continues to lay on the punishment.
Although sanctions rarely achieve their stated aim of forcing political change, they succeed in turning populations against the United States. Someday the governments of Iran and Venezuela will be different. Citizens of those countries, however, will always remember who supported them in their hour of need and who turned on them. China, with its global relief effort, is increasing its soft power by the hour. The United States is losing it.
This pandemic gives us a chance to test a new approach to countries we consider enemies — not just Iran and Venezuela, but Russia, Syria, Cuba, and even North Korea. The United States is so pitifully unprepared that we have little to offer in the way of material aid. We could, however, ease sanctions. That would allow all countries to export and earn money that they could use for emergency public health services. Simply allowing Iran and Venezuela to borrow through the international banking system, which they now cannot use because the United States threatens to sanction any bank that does business with them, would give the countries access to quick cash. An easy first step toward a policy of easing access to capital would be to endorse Iran’s request for a $5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Sanctions are often described as peaceful instruments. The opposite is true. They wreck societies more effectively than bombs. By cutting off the possibility of work or productive life, sanctions can destroy nations, one family at a time. They almost never expire. Rarely does the United States offer a realistic way for governments to escape from them. Instead they become a steady, ever-intensifying torment that hollows out entire generations — while robbing societies of the resources they need to face disasters like global pandemics. Although American leaders disingenuously insist that US sanctions do not affect humanitarian goods, the reality is that our tight restrictions on trade, banking, and shipping have the same effect.
One group of foreigners loves American sanctions just as much as the Trump administration and members of Congress: the criminals who profit from sanctions-busting. As soon as sanctions settle in and become a part of a country’s life, a new line of business emerges. Smugglers assure that everything people want is available at inflated prices. They become a criminal class that promotes a brutal form of politics. When Serbia was sanctioned in the 1990s, rampaging death squads supported themselves by selling smuggled food and cigarettes. In Iraq, one of Saddam Hussein’s sons ran the traffic in smuggled oil. Today in Iran, profits from sanctions-busting speedboats crisscrossing the Persian Gulf sustain the repressive Revolutionary Guards.
In the two decades since the end of the Cold War, America’s use of sanctions has raced wildly out of control. Now would be an ideal moment to change course. In the face of a humanitarian crisis, the United States should try suspending sanctions rather than intensifying them. A post-pandemic world should also be a post-sanctions world.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.