FEMENA‘s Director, Sussan Tahmasebi, contributed to POMED’s Expert Q & A -Beyond Rhetoric: How Should the Biden Administration Support Human Rights and Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa?
The human rights issue that the Biden administration can address most effectively in Iran is the harm that U.S. financial sanctions are inflicting on ordinary people there. In providing sanctions relief to Iranians, President Biden can drive home the point that human rights include economic and social rights as well as political rights. In fact, considering their devastating impact on the economic and social welfare of ordinary Iranians, the crushing financial sanctions imposed by the Trump administration—and so far maintained by the Biden team—constitute a human rights violation.
As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, the Trump administration targeted Iran’s financial and industrial sectors, including its central bank and oil and gas industries, with crippling primary and secondary sanctions. Trump’s policy failed to achieve its stated goals of changing Iran’s regional policies and forcing Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal—or its unstated goal of regime change. But the sanctions, along with the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged Iran, have pushed Iran’s mismanaged economy deeper into crisis, leading to widespread suffering.
With Iran’s currency losing half its value since April 2020 and inflation reaching 39 percent this year, reports indicate that poverty has risen sharply. The implications include increasing levels of food insecurity, health complications, domestic violence, and suicide. Sanctions and the resulting economic crisis have had a disproportionate impact on middle-class women, who have seen significant drops in living standards, social standing, and workforce participation. On the healthcare front, U.S. sanctions have made it extremely difficult for Iranians to access some essential medicines and medical equipment. During the pandemic, sanctions have hobbled the healthcare system and constrained the government’s ability to purchase vaccines.
Sanctions also have crushed Iranian civil society, affecting activists who have been pushing for democracy and civil rights for decades. NGOs that once worked to promote high-level issues like democracy and human rights have had to switch to helping people meet their most basic needs. Meanwhile, as ordinary Iranians’ economic conditions deteriorate, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a main target of U.S. sanctions, has only grown richer and more powerful under the sanctions regime.
The Biden administration, which says it will stand up for human rights “everywhere,” should take decisive and immediate steps to unblock Iranian funds abroad to enable Iran to purchase COVID vaccines and engage more easily in humanitarian trade such as importing medicine and food more easily. The administration also should issue a blanket license for humanitarian organizations to provide aid to Iranians suffering as a result of the pandemic. This is the humane and human rights-centered approach to addressing the needs of Iranian people while Tehran and Washington decide how to move forward on the nuclear file.