The facts and fictions of Iranian sanctions

US sanctions specifically allow for the sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine and medical devices to Iran.

United States Capitol building in Washington, DC. (photo credit: REUTERS)
United States Capitol building in Washington, DC.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the coming weeks, Congress is expected to resume consideration of Iran sanctions. In response, US and Iranian officials as well as sanctions opponents are preparing their usual barrage of anti-sanctions rhetoric.
Sanctions are a clumsy and violent weapon, they say. They are at once devastating and impotent. And most absurd, they are a form of violent extremism.
To support these claims, misleading pronouncements about Iranian sanctions will recirculate. Most have been debunked time and again, but because Iranian officials and their surrogates parade them so persistently, some of the most dubious assertions have managed to masquerade as fact.
Take the myth that sanctions have devastated Iran’s healthcare system.
While this is a widely circulated claim, it is also patently untrue. Sanctions are drafted with broad exemptions for humanitarian goods and services.
US sanctions specifically allow for the sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine and medical devices to Iran.
The Iranian regime, on the other hand, cynically restricts public access to drugs and medicine, depriving its citizens of quality healthcare. In fact, Iran’s former health minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi was fired in 2012 after exposing such corrupt practices. Speaking on state television, Dastjerdi revealed that Iran’s Central Bank delivered only $600 million worth of imported medicine and medical supplies out of the $2.5 billion earmarked in Iran’s annual budget.
The former head of Iran’s Central Bank later confirmed Dastjerdi’s report, and acknowledged that officials were importing large quantities of cars and luxury goods in place of medicine and other essential products.
Iran’s government has also placed artificial constraints on the drugs and medicines it does import. One government employee revealed that out of 20 units of medication in government supply, only two are available to the public.
The rest are “reserved” for Iranians with influence or good connections.
Similar falsehoods surround the effect of US sanctions policy on Iranian Internet services. For example, critics would have us believe that sanctions are responsible for the severely limited Internet access in Iran. This claim is preposterous.
Iran’s government blocks millions of websites, including more than 50 percent of the world’s top web pages, and interferes to keep Internet speeds artificially slow. The regime also jams satellite signals to prevent foreign broadcasts from reaching the Iranian public.
Moreover, bloggers and social media users have been condemned to prison sentences as long as 100 years, or even to death, for online “crimes” ranging from insulting the Prophet to political activism. In a December 2014 report from Freedom House, Iran was named the country with the lowest degree of Internet freedom in the world. Meanwhile, the country’s leaders hypocritically use Facebook and Twitter to propagate the regime’s extremist ideology.
Another enduring myth is that sanctions place undue restrictions on Iranians’ access to education.
On the contrary, not only does the EU advocate for Iranians to study in Europe, it provides a scholarship program specifically for Iranian students.
US sanctions also provide exemptions, and allow the provision of scholarships so Iranians can feasibly study at US institutions. In 2010, a report showed that despite US sanctions in place at the time, Iranian students were increasingly leaving Iran to study abroad in the United States.
In concert, critics would have us believe that sanctions starve and devastate the Iranian people by depriving them of food, education and healthcare while failing to affect policy change among regime leaders.
The inconvenient truth however is that the Iranian regime’s rampant corruption, mismanagement and repression have devastated the Iranian economy and restricted freedoms for millions of Iranians. The targeted and multilateral Iran sanctions regime is an effective non-violent policy tool that has raised the costs of the Iranian regime leadership’s ongoing intransience and illicit behavior while complementing US diplomatic efforts. It was after all US Secretary of State John Kerry who stated that “outreach alone is not a strategy. If diplomacy is to work, it must be backed by the prospect of tough, escalating multilateral sanctions strong enough to actually change behavior.”
Absent continued sanctions enforcement and the prospect of additional sanctions measures the Iranian regime will have little incentive to abandon its nuclear program.
It is time to cut through the cloud of fictions that surround the Iranian sanctions debate. Targeted international sanctions, coupled with responsible humanitarian exemptions, have effectively and responsibly pressured the Iranian regime. These are the facts of the Iranian sanctions. It is time to discern them from the fictions.
David Ibsen is executive director of the non-partisan advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), and Julie Shain is a UANI Research Analyst.