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Dangerous Misconceptions About Sanctions on Iran and Its Nuclear Program
On August 27, 2012, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), an organization whose stated goal is to serve the interests of Iranian Americans, released a report discussing the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iranians and Iranian Americans. The report, while laudable in its efforts, makes a number of unsupported conclusions about U.S. sanctions and Iran's nuclear program. The report provides an opportunity to highlight four major misconceptions the public has about Iran's nuclear program and the impact of sanctions on Iranians and Iranian Americans.
#1: Iran has a nuclear weapons program
The PAAIA report initially stated that sanctions have created "challenges in developing nuclear weapons" and still notes that "many experts still doubt that severe and sustained economic pressure will be sufficient to persuade Iran to abandon its drive for nuclear weapons capability." These assertions create the underlying assumption that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons program, a misperception commonly used by advocates of military strikes. The reality is far more complicated. Both Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies have consistently found that Iran has not made the decision to pursue nuclear weapons. In remarks to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 31, 2012, James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence noted that "We do not know . . . if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." A few months later, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haartz, General Benny Gantz, the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, explained that while "[Iran is] going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile." While Iran's nuclear hedging is certainly a cause for serious international concern, a nuclear program does not necessarily equate a nuclear weapon, a misconception created by the sensationalized statements in the report. That Iran has not decided to develop nuclear weapons also emphasizes the importance of exhausting all diplomatic means.
#2: Iranian-Americans have not been impacted by sanctions
The report states that "Though there are many anecdotal stories about the effect of sanctions on Iranian Americans, there is minimal scientific data to support these stories." This unsupported finding is outright incorrect and is incidentally contradicted by PAAIA's own poll, which found 44% of Iranian Americans reporting that sanctions are "somewhat burdensome or a very burdensome impact on their ability to support their families." Indeed, the effect of sanctions on Iranian Americans is far more serious than that claimed by PAAIA. Companies have refused to sell goods and services to Iranian Americans, even when such sales would be permitted by law. Numerous banks have refused to open checking or savings accounts for Iranian Americans. Some U.S. employers require background checks and prior approval from the Department of Treasury before hiring Iranians (regardless of their citizenship status). Furthermore, Iranian Americans have become the target and victims of federal prosecutions and investigations for transferring innocuous goods or services to or from Iran, such as donations to assist impoverished children in Iran or family remittances. The impact the sanctions have had on Iranian Americans is real and significant. Minimizing the effects also supports a pro-sanctions approach while also preventing sorely needed remedial measures. Indeed, this was the effect when PAAIA first issued a press release discrediting claims of Apple's discrimination against Iranian Americans (a statement picked up by Fox News) even though it later demanded that Apple cease discriminatory practices
#3: The impact felt by Iranian civilians is minimal
PAAIA's 35-page report minimizes the devastating effects sanctions have had on ordinary Iranians to a few sentences which concludes that Iranians are "reluctant to obtain much needed medical care" due to the soaring cost of basic procedures. The reality is far worse, as has been extensively documented by the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), the Iranian Hemophilia Society, and others. As Al-Monitor reported, "an ever more complex web of US sanctions is depriving Iranians with life-threatening conditions of the drugs and other medical products they desperately need." As ICAN noted, the costs of both domestic and imported medicines skyrocketed, becoming increasingly unavailable. The ICAN report notes the harrowing fact that "Patients with poorer prognoses or those who cannot afford it are forgoing treatments and opting for an early death so they don't burden their families financially." A report by the Financial Times similarly found that "cancer patients and those being treated for complex disorders such as hemophilia, multiple sclerosis and thalassemia, as well as transplant and kidney dialysis patients" are dying because of the sanctions. A comprehensive picture of the sanctions policy requires an analysis of its success in achieving its strategic goals and outlining its collateral effect on Iranian civilians.
#4: Diplomacy has failed and/or will not succeed
The report states that evidence supports the view that economic sanctions are the only means, short of military action, that could persuade Iran to change its position on the nuclear issue "primarily because of the Iranian government's potential willingness to make concessions on the nuclear issue if the economic sanctions are removed." The Report notes "[h]owever, whether the Islamic Republic of Iran will reach an agreement and actually uphold the commitment remains to be seen and is unlikely based on the failure of the recent P5+1 negotiations." The report feeds into the perspective of pro-war pundits who allege that diplomacy has failed. PAAIA's own board member, former senior advisor to the State Department, Vali Nasr, has noted that "Obama's critics on the right will look for the slightest opening to dismiss diplomacy as having failed and again push for war." The Obama administration has disputed that misperception, noting as recently as last week that "there remains time and space" for diplomacy and sanctions "to bring about a change in behavior from Iran."
Whitewashing the effects the sanctions have on Iranians and Iranian Americans while also making unsubstantiated claims about Iran's nuclear program or that diplomacy is likely to fail only serves one purpose: it furthers misconceptions held by the public while paving the way for an unnecessary and preventable conflict with Iran. As tensions between Iran and the U.S. reach fever pitch and as the conflict in Syria threatens to spill onto the rest of the region, the need for an informed public is greater now than at any other time in recent memory. Tackling misconceptions is necessary to ensure we have an informed society before and not after another avoidable and tragic U.S. war in the Middle East.
Nema Milaninia is a prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and previously President of the Iranian American Bar Association and on the Board of Advisors for the Pars Equality Center. Pouya Alimagham is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Michigan where he focuses on Iran and revolutionary movements in the Middle East. The opinions reflected in this piece belong to the authors alone and none of their affiliated organizations.