Iran has faced repeated rounds of multilateral sanctions from the U.S., EU, and UN, since its 1979 revolution, which overthrew the Shah and brought Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Although the sanctions were intended to curb Iran’s nuclear program and end its alleged support for international terrorism, they have spilled over into unrelated civilian sectors, exacting a harrowing toll on ordinary Iranians by denying them life-saving medication as well access to travel, study, and banking abroad. 

Jimmy Carter initiated the first series of U.S. sanctions against Iran in November 1979 in response to the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when a group of students took control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held dozens of U.S. diplomats hostage. The U.S. froze Iranian government assets in the U.S. and in American banks abroad, until the release of the hostages in January 1981. Reagan later re-imposed sanctions on Iranian products in 1984 due to Iran’s alleged support for international terrorism. The U.S. expanded sanctions against oil exports from Iran under the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 and subsequently extended the ban to all trade and investment activities. 

In 2010, Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which amended the existing sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 to put greater pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program. The new law banned the import of most Iranian goods and services and forbade American citizens from exporting goods and services to Iran. 

Although section 3, article 10 of the Act notes that: “the people of the United States have feelings of friendship for the people of Iran,” and “regret that developments in recent decades have created impediments to that friendship,” the U.S. intensified sanctions the following year. It extended them to include punitive measures against persons and companies that aided or supplied Iran’s oil or chemical industry and to target groups such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. 

The U.S. has been the primary but not the sole instigator of sanctions. The UN Security Council also imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006 and subsequently passed a series of resolutions imposing a travel ban on certain persons, freezing individuals’ and companies’ assets, embargoing material that could be used for Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and banning the exportation and procurement of arms.

The EU also enacted its own sanctions, restricting the importation of equipment that could be used for domestic repression in 2010. Then, in 2012, it embargoed Iranian oil and froze assets belonging to Iran’s central bank.

Finally, in 2015, it appeared that the international community was ready to turn over a new leaf. U.S. President Obama broke with precedent when he and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani signed the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), along with five other major powers. The JCPOA lifted sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to limit its nuclear activities. Iran’s GDP rates soared to 12.3 percent the following year and grew by a modest 3.7 percent in 2017. 

President Donald Trump, however, reversed Obama’s decision in May 2018 when he announced that the U.S. would unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran. The first round of the Trump administrations’ sanctions targeting Iran’s currency market and non-petroleum economic sectors went into effect in August. The second round was imposed on November 5, directly targeting the petroleum, shipping, energy, and insurance sectors. The U.S. issued sanction waivers to eight of Iran’s oil customers to allow them to continue crude oil exports until May 2019. But the U.S. has since announced that it will not be renewing the waivers. 

In June, the U.S. Treasury Department announced additional sanctions, targeting Iran’s petrochemical industry. Tensions have only escalated since then. 

Britain said Iran was “almost certainly” responsible for attacks on two oil tankers.  On July 4, authorities in Gibraltar, assisted by British Royal Marines, seized an Iranian oil tanker, claiming it was carrying oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. Following threats of retaliation by Iran, on July 10, gunboats allegedly from Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) approached a British oil tanker and allegedly tried to take into Iranian waters.

While political tensions escalate, the impact on Iran’s economy has been severe. As a result of the Trump administrations’ previous sanctions, Iran’s GDP declined by 3.9 percent in 2018, according to the IMF, and is expected to contract by an additional 6 percent in 2019. The World Bank reported in June that Iran is likely to experience an even worse recession than it originally predicted, as U.S. sanctions choke off the oil exports that have been Tehran’s main source of revenue. Meanwhile, year-on-year inflation is rising, increasing from around 10 percent in mid-2018 to 52 percent in April of this year. 

Yet, sanctions have done little to stunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Tehran has outright rejected proposals to reopen international dialogue.

Yet, sanctions have done little to stunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Tehran has outright rejected proposals to reopen international dialogue. In May, Rouhani publicly compared current life in Iran under U.S. sanctions to the devastating Iran-Iraq war period (1980-1988), acknowledging the hardship experienced by many Iranians. At the same time, he made clear that Iran had no intention of capitulating to Washington’s demands. Iran also rejected French proposals for international talks, retorting that it would negotiate only the existing nuclear deal with world powers.

In addition to being ineffective in yielding the political outcome sought by Washington, sanctions have been detrimental to ordinary Iranian citizens who have no say in their government’s nuclear ambitions or alleged support of international terrorism.

The economic implications of sanctions have severely affected various sectors, such as the paper industry. The “paper crisis” has led 100 independent publishers to go bankrupt, and some newspapers to cease printing. The government has, meanwhile, been forced to subsidize paper.

While sanctions do not directly target pharmacies or the medical sector, they are also harming public health institutions and causing shortages of critical medicines, medical supplies, and devices. According to the World Bank, health expenditures in Iran fell to $415.39 per capita in 2016. Setayesh and Mackey (2016) identified 73 reported drug shortages in Iran for treatment of diabetes, cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, MS, cardiovascular conditions, hemophilia, Alzheimer’s, malaria, Parkinson’s, and depression, among others. 

Many of the victims of the Iran-Iraq war are dependent on medical care for various chronic respiratory, skin, and eye problems, and sanctions have left them without access to inhalers, oxygen tanks, and organ transplant medication.

Over 100,000 Iranians are victims of chemical warfare dating from the Iran-Iraq warthen the U.S. and UK had supplied many of the chemical agents to the Iraqi regime to use against Iran.  Many of the victims of the Iran-Iraq war are dependent on medical care for various chronic respiratory, skin, and eye problems, and sanctions have left them without access to inhalers, oxygen tanks, and organ transplant medication. Even basic painkillers like Advil and Tylenol have become scarce and what little is left has become prohibitively expensive. 

Sanctions have also led to discrimination against Iranians abroad, from frozen bank accounts, to denied student loans, to outright rejections of their university applications. Moreover, in 2012, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, expelled some 30 Iranian banks, in compliance with EU sanctions.

If the U.S. and the broader international community are sincere about their “feelings of friendship” for Iranians, they may wish to find an alternative to sanctions which have failed to change Iran’s nuclear policy over the last forty years. They have, however, unquestionably inflicted profound and unwarranted suffering on many innocent Iranians.