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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal shows the uselessness of economic sanctions

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Show caption ‘Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have been victims of the latest weapon of western coercion.’ Photograph: Untitled/AP Opinion Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal shows the uselessness of economic sanctions Simon Jenkins This vacuous foreign policy weapon exacts a human price while failing to achieve any objective Thu 17 Mar 2022 16.39 GMT Share on Facebook

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Joy at the release of two Britons from an Iranian jail should not conceal the squalid diplomacy revealed by their ordeal. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have been victims of the latest weapon of western coercion, on display in all its impotence.

The essence of the case isn’t disputed. Britain owed Iran £400m for undelivered military equipment. Britain found the Tehran regime distasteful. It also said it should not be allowed to build nuclear plants. With America and others, it signalled this distaste with what was, after the 1979 Iranian revolution, a relatively novel form of aggression: a comprehensive trade embargo. The Iranians retaliated with an equally medieval weapon: the taking of hostages. There followed a saga of diplomatic duplicity, intransigence and incompetence on all sides.

When the Shah of Iran had fallen it was at least conceivable that the country might mature, like Pakistan, into a semi-democratic state and friend of the west. As it was, America and Britain could not resist a post-imperial urge to order its behaviour. Each failure of “human rights” – or each regional interference – was punished with harsher sanctions. The ayatollahs and their military Revolutionary Guards grew stronger with each barrage of abusive epithets hurled by western diplomats.

Sanctions and ostracism exiled Iran’s mercantile and intellectual class – seedbed of potential opposition – while impoverishing the mass of the Iranian people. They were utterly counterproductive, leaving Iran today with its most extremist government for decades. Apart from a brief relaxation in the 1980s, Iran has been under economic and cultural siege for almost half a century, thus preserved as a citadel of Islamist fundamentalism, constantly destabilising the region.

There is virtually no academic study of what has become the most ubiquitous – and fashionable – weapon of international conflict, the sanction. America has around three dozen countries subject to some embargo or other. Conferences I have attended on the subject debate the deployment of sanctions entirely in terms of hurt inflicted, never objectives won. The present “war on the oligarchs” is a classic of the genre, like high-profile politicians and knights in armour tilting at each other.

Sanctions drive their victims into protective shells. The result is glaring. Almost every state sanctioned by the west has been blessed with suppressed dissent and an entrenched power structure. If I were ruler of sanctioned Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe or Myanmar, I would plead for sanctions to remain. As for sanctioned Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, after the failure of sanctions all became victims of subsequent western military intervention, mostly disastrous.

The few critics who have attempted to analyse the impact of these sieges have searched in vain for any sense in them. The historian Richard Haass was intrigued by their “paradoxical” popularity. He found “the economic, humanitarian and foreign policy cost of US sanctions far outweigh any benefits”. They served as “little more than expressions of US preferences … without changing the target’s behaviour for the better”. The philosopher Noam Chomsky has long campaigned against their cruelty and counter-productivity, while the economist Daniel Griswold calculated they were costing America up to $2bn a year, while merely hurting “the poor and most vulnerable in the target countries”.

As for the crisis in Ukraine, the sanctions monitors at the American Peterson Institute for International Economics can find no sign that the severest economic aggression in modern history has yielded “the slightest evidence that Moscow will change course and ‘rehabilitate’ itself in the eyes of the west”. The best hope is apparently that China might be deterred from invading Taiwan.

The glib reply of proponents of sanctions is that they are better than war. In other words, it is taken as read that the west has an obligation to “do something” about evil regimes wherever they exist. The weapon appeals to democratic politicians as seeming tough without being violent. It offers a quick headline with no need for subsequent validation. Hence the daily cry down the Westminster corridor, from left and right, for “ever tougher sanctions”, like Great War generals demanding that ever more troops must “go over the top”.

The experience of Zaghari-Ratcliffe might at least show that while sanctions may not achieve their objective, they do exact a human price. They block the restoration of relations between disagreeing states. They deny the liberalising effect of trade and of intellectual and humanitarian exchange. Soft power is denied its potency. Worse, by being so vacuous, sanctions become almost impossible to withdraw. A British minister, James Cleverly, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that sanctions would continue until the Iranians “change their behaviour”. It might have been Lord Curzon speaking.

Unless wonders happen, Ukraine should expose the hypocrisy of the “age of sanctions”. It has Britain traipsing round the Middle East begging for cheaper fuel, so it can pretend it is saving the planet by not drilling its own. It has had to negotiate with one regime, Iran, that it purports to detest, while pleading with another, Saudi Arabia, that it refuses to detest. All because of sanctions. Has British diplomacy ever looked more shabby?

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist