In a 1996 interview with 60 Minutes, Madeline Albright, then Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, was asked about the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iraq. Implemented in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the sanctions had crippled Iraq’s economy and devastated its civilian population. Unofficial figures from the United Nations, as well as other organizations, estimated that at least half a million children had died as a result of these sanctions. This led 60 minute correspondent, Leslie Stahl, to ask Albright whether the intended outcomes were worth the human cost. Albright responded, “I think this is a very hard choice. But the price … we think the price is worth it.”
Hans von Sponeck, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq from November 1998 to February 2000, disagreed profoundly. Following 30 years of service, von Sponeck resigned from the U.N., citing as his reason “the continuation of a sanction[s] regime in Iraq despite overwhelming evidence that the fabric of Iraqi society is swiftly eroding and an international awareness that the approach chosen so clearly punishes the wrong party.” Worse still, the price paid by the Iraqi people never brought about the changes for which Secretary Albright and others had hoped. Instead, it took the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country to bring about the long-desired outcome of toppling Saddam Hussein’s government.
Ten years after von Sponeck’s resignation, the world faces a similar dilemma in dealing with Iran. Having “resolved” the problem of Iraq, the international community has turned its attention to thwarting Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions. A member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1958, Iran has asserted that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful and civilian purposes, but the international community, particularly the United States, rejects the claim. In recent months the U.N., the United States, and the European Union have implemented new rounds of sanctions, designed to place pressure on the Islamic Republic’s economic activities. The term “smart” sanctions has been employed to suggest that these measures, unlike the comprehensive sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, will only target the Iranian government and its key economic and military operatives including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As of this writing, various official and unofficial companies with links to the Iranian government and/or the IRGC have been specifically targeted by these measures.
By arguing that “smart” or “targeted” sanctions will not have a major impact upon the general Iranian population, the international community has avoided a deeper discussion on the human costs of sanctions. Indeed, current debates surrounding sanctions on Iran, whether in the mainstream media or academic circles, mainly focus on the efficacy of these measures in forcing Iran to comply with the demands of Western governments. Nonetheless, given the failure of indiscriminate sanctions in Iraq and “smart” sanctions in Zimbabwe, it is relatively simple to argue that sanctions are unlikely to dislodge the Iranian government from its position. In fact, many analysts have already skillfully refuted the U.S. government’s claims regarding the effectiveness of the sanctions program. The more damning and much less debated aspect of these sanctions is their probable impact on the general population.