05 September 2013

Sanctions—deadlier than war?

Most Canadians, I suspect, don't pay much attention to the use of sanctions in international politics. War, yes—people being shot, bombed, and apparently even gassed is hard to ignore—but sanctions are complicated and largely invisible, easy to tune out. Most people's reaction is simply, "They're a lot better than war, eh?

But an eye-opening article in Harper's September issue suggests that is not necessarily so. The article, "A Very Perfect Instrument," claims that the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq cost the lives of at least half a million children from malnutrition and such diseases as gastroenteritis and cholera compared to the death toll of 174,000 from subsequent violence.

That wasn't supposed to happen—the sanctions allowed for shipments of food and medicine. But this safeguard existed more in theory than practice. The United States blocked attempts by the Iraqis to buy pumps needed for water treatment plants. Chlorine, for disinfecting the contaminated water, was denied also on the grounds it could be used as a chemical weapon. People were forced to use dirty water and the result was a slaughter of the innocents.

The current sanctions against Iran create a similar dilemma. If the Iranians want to buy food or medicines, they must pay through a bank of the country from which they make the purchase. But foreign banks are terrified of dealing with Iran lest they be punished by the Americans for sanctions-busting. They can be fined or have their U.S. assets seized. The article offers the example of an Iranian pharmaceutical executive who presented a French bank with documents showing that a trade deal was legal only to be told that even if he brought a letter form the French president himself, they would not risk it. Iran is, in effect, shut out of the international banking system.

That the Iranian people pay the price of sanctions is not surprising. After all, sanctions are intended to undermine governments by hurting ordinary citizens. As Winston Churchill said about the blockade of Germany during the First World War, the intention was to "starve the whole population of Germany ... into submission."

The article suggests that the sanctions won't dissuade the Iranians from their nuclear ambitions (whatever those ambitions might be) for at least two reasons. First, they are doing more to rally the people behind the government than turn them against it. And second, the ayatollahs simply don't believe that this is the purpose of the sanctions. They believe that the American goal is to destroy the regime. And they are probably right.

In the meantime, ordinary Iranians suffer. Referring to the WWI blockade of Germany, the article makes an interesting point. The blockade persisted for five months after the armistice, and this peacetime extension resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million people, many of them children. A survey which asked young Nazis why they supported Hitler suggested a major reason was their "vivid memories of childhood hunger and privation." We might well wonder what the sanctions are brewing in Iran.

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