Drop the Damn Sanctions

By Lawrence Philby

Let me be brief: drop the damn sanctions (in part or in whole). 

Drop the trade embargo with Cuba that is draining the country of cash and goods. Slash the sanctions on Iran that have choked the supply of masks and pharmaceuticals. For the love of all, suspend the sanctions on Venezuela and channel aid to the country instead.

This is an absolute no-brainer – it’s rare that a foreign policy idea unites the “don’t ask me about 2003” neoconservative right with the left

The United States should not be holding fast to dead-end sanctions in the middle of a global pandemic, harpoon raised in an Ahab-like pursuit of regime change abroad even as the US ship of state comes apart under the strain of the crisis.

Let’s take the hardest case – Iran. Despite experiencing one of the most catastrophic COVID-19 outbreaks anywhere, Iran has continued the tit-for-tat trade of attacks in Iraq that the Trump administration has been all too willing to escalate in months past.

Now, we could go into a lengthy discussion about halting cycles of violence and the need for more far-sighted efforts to prioritize diplomacy and peace over elite score-settling and tossing red meat to domestic audiences. And how US policymakers on both sides of the aisle have contributed to the overuse of sanctions, heedless of the toll on civilian health or whether these tools are even effective. And we certainly could talk about the over-securitization of every aspect of US foreign policy.

But we also don’t need to.

US sanctions have crippled the Iranian healthcare system. Ensuring that the Iranian government can meet the threat of COVID-19 is of paramount concern as the country grapples with the largest outbreak outside of China – especially given the close proximity of US military bases and security partners. We should suspend sanctions unconditionally now.  

Even David Frum (yes, that David Frum) has advocated for suspending sanctions on Iran, although in transactional terms – a public offer of sanctions relief in exchange for a halt to all attacks on US forces or partners in the region for the foreseeable future. If the writer of the “Axis of Evil” speech can belatedly come around to what the left and humanitarian organizations have known for decades, there is no excuse for the Trump administration not attempting this, especially given that there are any number of available back channels.

So far, though, the Trump administration has opted for door number three – announcing ever-more sanctions in the middle of a pandemic, catering to the shrillest of Iran hawks who have egged on the Trump administration’s worst impulses towards Iran. 

There is simply no logic to this approach beyond cruelty. Even if continued sanctions could temporarily change the Iranian government’s approach to Iraq or ballistic missiles, the cost to civilian lives and American credibility in the face of an unprecedented global crisis far outweighs any potential benefit. One way or another, the sanctions crushing Iran’s public health system must be lifted.

Let’s keep going while we’re at it! What better excuse could we have to reset runaway US sanctions policy, prompting a broader debate on how we wield economic leverage? Endless sanctions may be cheaper (for the United States) than endless war, but they undermine the ability of states to confront dire threats to public health. And as COVID-19 quickly revealed, one country’s public health crisis is soon every country’s public health crisis.

Cuba sanctions are the most anachronistic of all US foreign policy positions – there is no reason to think that this is the year America’s 58-year running trade embargo will produce major policy changes in Cuba. Give the country access to the funds they need to bring spare industrial capacity online in a time of utmost need. Sanctions relief for Venezuela will reduce the inevitable burden on neighboring Colombia and Brazil regardless of how Venezuelan politics unfold in the months ahead. And who knows what kind of hellish situation sanctions are contributing to in North Korea.

COVID-19 has amply demonstrated that threats to public health, along with threats to any number of human and social rights, cannot be neatly contained within lines on a map, no matter how stringent the controls on the flow of people, goods, and capital. Unless the United States offers the most basic concessions to global resilience, the result will be to exacerbate a catastrophic situation across several continents.


Lawrence Philby is an occasional literary translator as well as a student of power and policymaking.

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