Sanctions — Why are we not all talking more about them?

In 2018 I spent 9 months in Iran speaking and connecting with young Iranians as they were moving through stages of education, employment and planning for the next steps to come. They came from different cities, different social classes and had differing relationships with religion and the government. What the majority did share though, was a deep concern for what the future for them and the sense of a long road ahead despite their efforts. The belief that what they put in, would not return proportionately to them if they remained in Iran was typical. They face many challenges, not least that they are living in a country which has been under the pressure of economic sanctions since 1979. What little respite they may have experienced during Obama’s presidency was short-lived with the reimposition of the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign in 2018.

Western mass-media too plays a role in alienating and disappointing Iranian young people. It is impossible to spend time in Iran and not be aware of the glaringly wide gap between the portrayal (or the purposeful un portrayed aspect) of Iran, largely conveyed to us via politician’s comments distributed via mass-media and the reality of Iran and its people. Most of the representations that do exist are not nuanced and are not placed under much critical scrutiny by the UK. Despite our general agreement that media representations are often skewed and without bias, there is an absence of critical dialogue happening in the UK regarding sanctioning and media treatment of Iran.

This lack of dialogue could be linked to apathy on our part but also to the confusion and apprehension we may feel when considering complicated political landscapes abroad. However, we have witnessed here in the UK how the media and political parties work together to oversimplify and polarize public opinion to further their own aims, and it is not news to us that our government has pushed ahead with foreign policies, holding agendas much different from those presented to us by the media. This suggests to me that it is logical to have a position of curiosity about narratives in the media and by the government in whatever stance they may take regarding sanctioning.

For those of us who are engaged and concerned about the living conditions of people living under sanctions, we should be speaking more about the harmful consequences of sanctions. For those that do support harsh economic sanctions and believe that economic pressure may bring about governmental change, it is worth questioning the extent that sanctions actually ever achieve their desired outcomes anyway.

After all studies about sanctions suggest that actually sanctions are largely ineffective. That economic sanctions, in fact, deteriorate democracy, undermine opposition groups and do very little to affect willingness to change on a political level. Peksen & Drury for example, concluded from their analysis of time-series cross-national data over a period of 28 years that sanctions ‘contribute to the decrease in respect for civil liberties and political rights’ (2010, P.258).

Moret’s (2015) findings also support sanctioning’s negative or inconsequential effects in achieving political agendas. She concludes that ‘the past two decades have seen widespread acknowledgement by sanctions scholars and policy-makers alike that the civilian pain caused by comprehensive sanctions outweighs any political gain that may be achieved’. She claims that this has led to a shift toward using targeted sanctions, yet in the case of the US this has not come to pass despite ‘widespread acknowledgement’ of their futility and at such a high human cost. Yet still 5 years on and there are apparently no consequences for countries that continue to enforce comprehensive sanctions.

This is confusing, particularly when the U.S and European countries claim humanitarian concerns also motivate sanctions or that they are the ‘core issue’ of Iran — West relations ((Nougayrède, 2018). It is also widely known — though perhaps more so for the general public since the recent outbreak of COVID — 19, that sanctions have made the obtaining of certain pharmaceutical drugs difficult or impossible (Borger & Dehghan, 2013, Garder, 2019).

The 2019 Human Rights Watch Report, reports how Trump’s Maximum pressure campaign is having a substantial effect on the lives of ordinary Iranians, especially for those requiring specialised treatment for conditions and diseases such as those with leukaemia, epidermolysis bullosa, epilepsy and chronic eye injuries (from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war) (P.3, Human Rights Watch, 2019a). It also relates that sanctions are affecting food, medicine and medical imports and the transferring of donor funds to humanitarian actors such as the Norwegian Refugee Council who are supporting thousands of Afghan refugees (P.4, 2019a).

In 2019 the UN special Rapporteur made a statement expressing his concern for the situation of human rights in Iran in relation to food security, medicines, pharmaceutical equipment and supplies, as well as the potential negative effect sanctions may have on the United Nations operations in the country (p.3, 2019a).

For those concerned about women’s rights, I would also suggest considering taking a look at studies, such as those done in Iraq (Buck et al 1998) Haiti, Burma and former Yugoslavia (Drury and Peksen, 2012) which show that sanctions have a great negative effect on women’s rights, status in society and their participation in the workforce.

The hypothesis that economic sanctions worsen women’s economic status and social/political rights, was tested using time-series, cross-sectional data from 1971 to 2005 and encompassed 146 countries by Drury and Peksen in 2012.

Sanctions were shown to hurt access to social welfare as governments become less able to sponsor social programs. Disposition for violence rises with growing frustration and anger at economic circumstances. Export orientated industries which are typically female-heavy are disrupted. Furthermore, women are the first targets for layoffs, lower pay, and discrimination when the economy is struggling (2012).

Iranian female activists themselves condemn sanctions for the effect on women and other vulnerable members of society and in 2019 170 + supporters and members of the Iranian women’s movement signed a statement in criticism of sanctions,

“We a group of Iranian women’s movement activists and women’s rights defenders strongly condemn US efforts to stoke yet another war in the Middle East, this time against Iran. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, its bellicose posturing, and sanctions hurt the Iranian people most, especially women, children, minorities, refugees, the chronically ill and those with disabilities” (Iran human rights 2019).

The women-led grassroots organization Code Pink is advocating for the lifting of sanctions and apology to the Iranian people, with the campaign being led by several prominent Iranian and Iranian — American women such as Fatemeh Kershavaz, Leila Zand, Salome MC, Sima Shakhsari, Sussan Deyhim, and Sussan Tahmasebi.

Iranian poet and journalist Sepideh Jodeyri who lives in the US has also been speaking out against the sanctions and travel ban. On January 22, 2019, she organised an event, ‘No One Wants to Believe the Garden is Dying: American Poets against US Sanctions on Iran’, which spoke out against the US and other European countries for their actions against Iran.

In an interview in 2019 with Kourosh Ziabari in the Fair Observer, she spoke about Iranian political prisoners who despite being incarcerated by the Iranian government still speak out against sanctions, such as Dr Farhad Meysami and Narges Mohammadi. Additionally, she spoke about the difficulties in having the voice of the Iranian people being heard and the role of the Iranian community in the US,

Ziabari: Is the Iranian community in the United States outspoken enough to make sure the American leadership is aware of the Iranian people’s resentment toward the sanctions and the Muslim ban?

Jodeyri: Unfortunately not. There are many Iranian human rights activists and organizations in the US that are expected to support human rights in Iran. But as they are all getting their budget from the US, Saudi Arabia and Israeli governments, they just follow those governments’ guidelines, which are not necessarily beneficial for the people of Iran. So, what we see these days is that these activists are even supporting the sanctions and the Muslim ban. That might seem crazy, but it happened. And it makes all of us who are concerned about the future of Iran very hopeless.” (Ziabari and Jodeyri, 2019).

There have been studies on the effects that sanctions have too, over changing public opinion and feeling towards the government and the wider world, such as Grossman, Manekin and Margalit’s 2018 study on sanctioning policies. They asked if the public living under sanctions directed their frustration inward to their own government, or outward toward the sanctioning countries.

They recognised that many of the political consequences of sanctions are poorly understood, and that little attention has been given regarding the effects that sanctions have on public opinion and thus domestic politics. Through studies related to other sanctioned countries such as Russia and their own data taken in Israel, they suggested that there was a nuanced ‘distributional’ effect of sanctions in which the political consequences vary across society depending on which group is targeted, the sender identity (i.e. multilateral or unilateral) and the sanction type.

However, by and large, their findings suggested sanctions increased in-group solidarity and hostility to the ‘outsiders,’ feelings of patriotism and nationalism, and generated more public support for resistant leadership and/or support for the policy which had originally generated the sanctioning action, from supporters and opposers of the government (2018).

Sanandaji, (2018) explores the effects that sanctions have on the sanctioned country and its people through isolating them from the global marketplace, looking at Russia and North Korea. He claims that sanctions undermine peaceful relations, create substantial costs for the global economy and reduce economic and civil liberties. He draws upon studies on North Korea which show that since China and South Korea opened for some trading with North Korea, North Korea has since incorporated some elements of free markets into its economic model, bringing about what Kranz describes as ‘a social quiet revolution’ (Kranz, 2014 in Sanandaji, 2018).

His article also considers the effects that the sanctions had in increasing hostility in North Korea toward the rest of the world, concluding firstly that sanctions, through breaking the link of the targeted nation to the global marketplace ultimately cause it’s people to rely on state-intervention and to view the rest of the world with suspicion, and secondly, that this, along with the instability caused by sanctions, provides the breeding grounds for groups such as ISIS (P.10, 2018).

Aside from the evidence which shows that sanctions are counterproductive politically and socially, are the studies which suggest that sanctions can be detrimental to reaching the environmental sustainability targets, something to be taken into consideration by environmental activists considering the number of countries under sanctions.

In the case of Iran, results from Fotourechi’s 2019 study suggested the importance of lifting sanctions for controlling CO2 emissions and sustainable development in Iran. It draws on Liobikiene and Butuk’s 2017 study which shows that having an open economy, in turn, induces higher incomes that cause individuals to increase their demand for a cleaner environment and more stringent environmental regulations to encourage firms to adopt a clear production process — coined the technology effect.

Restriction on production and imports of eco-tech goods leads to individuals and businesses opting to buy cheaper domestic products that are less eco friendly. Fotourechi’s draws on research by Madani and Hakim (2016) which links the increased air pollution to U.S sanctions.

Air pollution is a severe problem in Iran and studies link it to the growing number of cancer and respiratory illnesses, with approximately 70,000 patients diagnosed with cancer and predictions that this number will rise.

Post sanction studies previous to Trump’s withdrawal from JCPOA, also consolidated research which had pointed to the sanction’s negative role in environmental sustainability, identifying positive changes happening in sustainable development, and the ‘greening process’ happening in Iranian businesses. Businesses post-sanctions were incorporating sustainable practices in order to enter the international market. New technologies too were more available, and foreign investments increased (Jahanshahi, Al-Gamrh and Gharlegi, 2019).

Although all the blame cannot be assigned to just sanctions and from my own experience Iranians themselves do not, the fact remains that there are now many studies which show that economic sanctions block progress in more than one capacity. And perhaps important for some is the fact that our lack of action about the government’s overall attitude and stance relating to harmful policies is also damaging to the reputation and credibility of our countries.

Mohammad Samiei’s paper Neo-Orientalism? The relationship between the West and Islam in our globalised world, 2010, is in my opinion really worth reading, in which he opens up some question for us in the West to take into consideration,

“Although Western societies enjoyed an early start and have made considerable progress in the direction of democracy, they leave much to be desired. The deficiencies of the West are appropriately understood by outsiders who at times are victims of unjust Western actions. This is perhaps most evident when Muslims look at how the West easily sacrifices its values for its own interests, advocates a brutal tyranny, keeps silent before a military coup, unconditionally advocates violent Israeli actions and wages a totally illegal war in Iraq in contrast to the will of the Western public. ” (P.1157, Samiei, 2010).


Borger, J. and Dehghan, S.K. (2013). Iran unable to get life-saving drugs due to international sanctions. The Guardian. [online] 13 Jan. Available at:

BUCK, L., GALLANT, N. and NOSSAL, K.R. (1998). Sanctions as a gendered instrument of statecraft: the case of Iraq. Review of International Studies, 24(1), pp.69–84.

Drury, A.C. and Peksen, D. (2012). Women and economic statecraft: The negative impact international economic sanctions visit on women. European Journal of International Relations, 20(2), pp.463–490.

Fotourehchi, Z. (2019). Are UN and US economic sanctions a cause or cure for the environment: empirical evidence from Iran. Environment, Development and Sustainability.

Gardner, T. (2019). U.S. sanctions on Iran threaten access to certain medicines: report. Reuters. [online] 29 Oct. Available at:

Ghaleb, A. (2012). An Anthropological Comparative Study Of The European Oil Sanctions Against Iran | Small Wars Journal. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Apr. 2020].

Grossman, G., Manekin, D. and Margalit, Y. (2018). How Sanctions Affect Public Opinion in Target Countries: Experimental Evidence From Israel. Comparative Political Studies, 51(14), pp.1823–1857.

Human Rights Watch (2019a). “Maximum Pressure.” [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2020].

Jahanshahi, A.A., Al-Gamrh, B. and Gharlegi, B. (2019). Sustainable development in Iran post-sanction: Embracing green innovation by small and medium-sized enterprises. Sustainable Development, 1(10), pp.1–10.

Katzman, K. (2020). Iran Sanctions. [online], Congressional Research Service, pp.1–112. Available at:

Moret, E.S. (2014). Humanitarian impacts of economic sanctions on Iran and Syria. European Security, 24(1), pp.120–140.

Nougayrède, N. (2018). The west ignores Iranian people power at its peril | Natalie Nougayrède. [online] the Guardian. Available at:

Peksen, D. and Drury, A.C. (2010). Coercive or Corrosive: The Negative Impact of Economic Sanctions on Democracy. International Interactions, 36(3), pp.240–264.

Radio Farda (2020). Coronavirus Chaos In Iran: Rouhani Wants Foreign Aid, Hardliners Don’t. [online] RFE/RL. Available at: [Accessed 6 Apr. 2020].

Salehi-Isfahani, D. (2010). IRAN’S YOUTH, THE UNINTENDED VICTIMS OF SANCTIONS The Dubai Initiative Policy Brief. [online] Belfer Center, pp.1–10. Available at: [Accessed 19 Apr. 2020].

Samiei, M. (2010). Neo-Orientalism? The relationship between the West and Islam in our globalised world. Third World Quarterly, 31(7), pp.1145–1160.

Sanandaji, N. (2018). BLOCKING PROGRESS The damaging side effects of economic sanctions. [online] IEA, pp.1–17. Available at: [Accessed 24 Apr. 2020].

TAKEYH, R. and MALONEY, S. (2011). The self-limiting success of Iran sanctions. International Affairs, 87(6), pp.1297–1312.

Zain Hussain, Z. (2011b). The Effect of Domestic Politics on Foreign Policy Decision Making. [online] E-International Relations, pp.1–13. Available at: [Accessed 19 Apr. 2020].

Ziabari, K. and Bernstein •, C. (2019). Charles Bernstein: Poetry in Solidarity with the Iranian People. [online] Fair Observer. Available at: [Accessed 6 Apr. 2020].

Ziabari, K. and Jodeyri •, S. (2019). Poets Speak Out Against US Sanctions On Iran. [online] Fair Observer. Available at: [Accessed 24 Apr. 2020].


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s