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A photo published in February 2021 shows the skyline of the Iranian capital, Tehran (Sajad Nori via Unsplash)

Let’s Face It: Sanctions Are Warfare by Another Name

A new book published by Stanford University Press unveils the human consequences of sanctions.

Words: Assal Rad
Pictures: Sajad Nori

Despite a growing national fatigue for endless wars, US militarism and adventurism continues to be a common feature of its foreign policy. As Americans struggle at home to put food on the table and costs of living have soared, the resources expended on wars abroad and military aid become even greater points of contention. It is in this context that we should examine the increasing reliance of consecutive US administrations on economic sanctions as a tool of coercion. But how well do we actually understand how sanctions work? A new book by the same name sets out to answer that very question.

At first glance, sanctions may appear like a useful alternative to war. Proponents of sanctions will argue that they avoid putting boots on the ground, thus protecting American servicemembers, they have the power to alter the behavior of targeted states, and prevent the devastation to innocent civilians caused by conventional warfare. But a deeper analysis of sanctions shows a starkly different picture. 

Though there has certainly been evidence and literature that shows the limited efficacy of sanctions and their humanitarian costs on civilians, those findings are not always accessible to the broader public and tend to have a narrower focus.

 And while many may recall the horror stories of how US sanctions hurt Iraqi children and civilians in the 1990s — especially the now infamous remarks by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stating that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children were “worth it” — sanctions policy is still not part of a wider political debate among the American public. 

Sanctions as a Silent Killer

This discrepancy is due in part to the fact that sanctions are a silent killer. They do not draw the same media attention as bombs, dead bodies, and images of cities and homes turned to rubble — as we are seeing in Gaza now. To be clear, the enormous destruction and loss of life at such a rapid pace in Gaza should be the headline of every news outlet. But while sanctions can profoundly damage an entire society, the slow death they produce often goes unnoticed.

Coauthored by a team of writers from different fields, including Narges Bajoghli, Vali Nasr, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, and Ali Vaez, “How Sanctions Work” explores the case of sanctions on Iran and how their impact is akin to war. By bringing together scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds, the book delivers a comprehensive study that examines the ways sanctions influence a targeted state and its people. At the same time, the book examines the cost of sanctions on the US and the international community. 

This discrepancy is due in part to the fact that sanctions are a silent killer.

It tells the story of adversaries — the US and Iran — who were able to defy the hawkish attitudes within both their states, overcome differences and a history of mutual distrust, and come to a landmark agreement with the Iran nuclear deal.

It also probes how that deal was lost and buried under a mountain of sanctions without considering the outcomes carefully. In many ways, the book is a thought experiment that invites readers to look at the evidence and consider what we can learn from the mistakes of the past. Rather than dismissing the use of sanctions as a foreign policy tool entirely, the authors try to enlighten the reader in order to understand how to use these same tools in a way that can actually achieve our objectives and minimize harm to civilians.

Human Narratives

Of course, the study also looks at the political and economic consequences of sanctions on Iran. Take, for instance, how elites are insulated from the effects of sanctions and ordinary Iranians bear the brunt of their fallout, all while power has been consolidated in fewer and more brutal hands. An economic analysis looks at markers such as living standards, wages, impact on nutrition, and the ever-shrinking Iranian middle class. 

But where the book has the most impact is its human narratives. By presenting the stories of real people, and the impact of sanctions that go beyond the headlines about inflation, high food prices, and lack of specialized medicines, the reader is exposed to how sanctions can change the fabric of a society. These are the stories of artists who have found the need to seek alternative sources of income and spend less time on their art, activists who have turned away from their engagement as the state has become increasingly repressive, and women who have lost their financial independence as their boutique businesses become a luxury fewer people can afford. 

It is these stories of ordinary people that may humanize a population that has been forgotten to the political rhetoric of states. Far from an obscure political policy, which is intentionally wrapped in complicated legal language to make the issue seem too complicated for the average person to comprehend, sanctions are a form of warfare that is becoming more crucial to discuss and understand. With its far-reaching yet accessible study, “How Sanctions Work is a timely and much-needed contribution to that discussion.

Assal Rad

Dr. Assal Rad is a scholar of Middle East history. She works on research and writing related to US foreign policy issues, the Middle East, and contemporary Iran. Her writing can be seen in Newsweek, The National Interest, The Independent, Foreign Policy and more, and she has appeared as a commentator on BBC World, Al Jazeera, CNN, and NPR. She completed a PhD in History from the University of California, Irvine in 2018 and is the author of “The State of Resistance: Politics, Culture, and Identity in Modern Iran” (Cambridge University Press, 2022). Follow Assal on X/Twitter: @AssalRad

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