Iran Needs Feminist Sanctions

"We are a group of Iranian mothers, representing different ethnicities and religions. We are mothers who have spent our youth fighting the dictatorship of the Shah and imperialism. We are mothers who joined the [1979] revolution in the hopes of achieving a free and prosperous Iran and…ensuring justice.”

They are the Mothers for Peace, a group of Iranian women with the aim of preventing violence in the country and promoting regional peace. They are altogether heroic and inspiring.

The Iranian regime is, as expected, stifling their efforts. But there is a graver, newer concern. The international community, led by the United States, is inhibiting their efforts perhaps even more strikingly. The sanctions we are placing on Iran are harming men and students and women and civil action groups, and they are undermining the very goal of the concerted international effort. These sanctions have become a human rights violation of the most despicable kind; Iranian women are reacting in shock, wondering “why do they hate us so much?”

This problem was supposed to have been solved years ago with the institution of smart sanctions, celebrated in policy circles because they aimed to deter Iran’s nuclear program by economically weakening the regime and not the populace. But the flaws of these sanctions have been made increasingly obvious; today, they practically seem inept. As far back as 2003, American publishers required a special license to deal with Iranian writers, a ruling that immediately affected Nobel Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, a beacon of Iranian human rights and free speech.

More recently, spiraling inflation due to these sanctions has rendered Iranian students, who can no longer access their currency or afford tuition, unable to study abroad and learn freely. Just two years ago, sanctions targeting insurance companies began affecting the availability of foreign-made medication to Iranians including vitamins for children and pregnant women. The price of bread has increased by some 1500% in the past two years due in large part to the removal of state subsidies. These “smart” sanctions have, in fact, done much to starve the very people they were supposed to protect. Noting their ridiculous bite, economist Mehrdad Emadi recently stated, "This particular form of sanctioning a nation has been unprecedented in the history of the world.”

But it gets disconcertingly worse, as recent studies have shown that these sanctions are also stifling the very people and organizations committed to bring democracy to this disturbingly authoritarian country. These sanctions aren’t just inept; they are destructive to democracy. This past month, the International Civil Society Action Network for Women’s Rights, Peace, and Security (ICAN Peace Network) revealed the extent of the damage with its findings that women and civil action groups are both severly harmed by these sanctions. It found that women are being pushed out of the job market and bearing the brunt of increased unemployment. Experts believe that the ensuing poverty will lead to the further withdrawal of girls from school and an increase in child marriage.

All this will further relegate women to the domestic sphere in a country already shamefully skewed towards men. These women, today part of the urban middle class that has historically played a central role in creating change and promoting progress in Iran, are now being forced to retreat from their volunteer work. The demise of public enterprise will inevitably force people to depend more on the state, spelling the end of civil activism.

Ironically, these international sanctions will destroy the best chances for the international wish of a democratic Iran.

It would appear, therefore, that harming a country economically goes a long way towards preventing the rise of democracy, and so sanctions, often useless anyways, should be abolished. This is the conclusion of July’s ICAN report. But I find this conclusion narrow-minded, particularly because sanctions have worked in South Africa, Bosnia, Libya, and North Korea. They remain, when used correctly, a poignant tool in urging a change in behavior. But they must be used correctly, and the international community has a responsibility to refocus on who exactly these sanctions are targeting and hurting. This responsibility is strategic, but it is also moral: ironically, the international community that is so worried about whether women will achieve representation in newly rising Islamist governments has made the lives of women in Iran worse because of its own efforts and policies.

As I’ve argued here before, what these Islamist governments will eventually look like is none of the international community’s business; these are foreign affairs in which we should have no hand. But, with foreign affairs in which we are already concerned--namely, the ability of Iranian women to feed their children and maintain their lives--the international community needs ensure that it is not doing more harm than good. That we have been causing these women and these civil action groups so much consistent harm in Iran is shocking and unacceptable. Sanctioning the very people we hope to one day see in power is cruel. And encouraging democracy requires more than just rhetoric; the promise of supporting freedom abroad will only cease to seem hollow once it is actually fulfilled.