Letter from Washington — From the September 2013 issue

A Very Perfect Instrument

The ferocity and failure of America’s sanctions apparatus

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It should be noted in passing that although sanctions are frequently promoted as, in Cohen’s words, “a heck of a lot better than war,” Iraqi sanctions are conservatively estimated to have killed at least half a million children, while estimates of the total death toll from subsequent violence — a still horrific 174,000 — are lower.

No one in Washington these days likes to talk about Iraqi sanctions, or to reflect on whether they might have had anything to do with Iraq’s inability to recover as a functioning state. “First of all, I don’t believe half a million died,” a former sanctions official told me. “And secondly, there were supplies of food and medicine, but Saddam controlled them. He was a brutal dictator.” I asked Cohen if he saw any parallels between that era and his present activities. “Not really,” he replied. “I think the sanctions that we have in place today are far different from those that we constructed at that time. . . . The differences far outweigh whatever similarities there may be.”

Yet there are ominous echoes of the Iraqi disaster in recent reports from Iran. The most obvious similarity is the collapsing currency, dropping from 16,000 rials to the dollar in early 2012 to 36,000 a year later — very much according to the sanctions plan. (As Cohen noted with satisfaction in Senate testimony in mid-May, “There’s a tremendous demand for gold among private Iranian citizens, which in some respects is an indication of the success of our sanctions.”) The price of a kilo of low-quality minced meat, for example, recently doubled in a week, to the equivalent of a day’s pay for a construction worker.

The echoes recur in less statistically obvious ways. Aircraft are crashing in greater numbers, largely because of an ongoing shortage of long-embargoed spare parts. Crime and drug addiction are growing exponentially, there being absolutely no shortage of narcotics, especially heroin from nearby Afghanistan, but also cocaine, the perquisite of the rich. Just as sanctioned Iraqis found a class of “new billionaires” flaunting their wealth in the midst of want, so sanctions are enriching a similar class of Iranians, not only drug dealers but smugglers, refinery operators, and other profiteers.

The clearest echo of all is to be found in the sanctions on medicine. As in the case of Iraq, where “humanitarian” goods and services were supposedly exempt, this embargo does not officially exist. Even Congress, despite calls to “hurt” the Iranian people, makes an exception for such goods in its otherwise draconian legislation. OFAC will grant licenses for shipments, though not always expeditiously. (As a former OFAC staffer told me, “Licenses get done when they get done.”) Cohen, too, insisted that his organization would not bar such aid: “The reality is that our sanctions do not forbid the export to Iran of food, medicines, [or] medical devices, whether it’s some U.S. company or some foreign company that wants to export those humanitarian goods. There’s nothing that forbids that.”

Reality gives the lie to these assertions. Simply put, licenses and waivers are irrelevant, because the excision of Iranian banks from the global financial system makes it practically impossible for anyone exporting medical supplies to Iran to get paid. The U.S. campaign to scare banks out of dealing with Iran under any circumstances has seen to that. And while Levey, like Cohen, insists that “U.S. sanctions carve out transactions for medicine and agricultural products,” Siamak Namazi, a Dubai-based researcher who has made the deepest study of this issue, argues otherwise. He quotes a senior Iranian pharmaceutical executive who flew to Paris to present a French bank with documents showing a trade was fully legal, only to be told: “Even if you bring a letter from the French president himself saying it is okay to do so, we will not risk this.”

So, years pass. We “squeeze, and then squeeze some more” with no end in sight. I am told that there were high-level intelligence briefings in Washington late last year predicting popular unrest in Iran due to hardships inflicted by the sanctions. I myself saw evidence of this misapprehension in a chance dinner conversation with a very senior State Department official and a wealthy Iranian-American businessman.

“The Iranians will respond to pressure,” said the official confidently.

I repeated this remark to the Iranian sitting beside him, whose eyes promptly widened in astonishment. “Oh no, not at all,” he replied. “You should meet my aunts in Tehran. They are from the old regime, nothing to do with the government, and yet they are so angry about the sanctions, they demonstrate for a nuclear Iran.”

The official looked astonished in turn. The notion that sanctions might be counterproductive was clearly new to him. But then, that was never the point of the “perfect instrument.” As for those “skinny and bloated children” who so disgusted the British troops in Germany a century ago, a later survey of 600 young Nazis on their motivations for supporting Hitler suggested that a major influence was their vivid memories of childhood hunger and privation.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He writes frequently on defense and national affairs, and is the author, most recently, of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.

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