When President Biden took office in January, a complex web of US sanctions hampered Iranians’ ability to access basic COVID treatments and supplies, like syringes, infusion pumps and test kits. Desperate doctors had been forced to advocate to the global public for relief.
While the full toll of US sanctions during the time of the pandemic is difficult to follow, the Brookings Institution estimated that between May and September 2020, US sanctions were responsible for an additional 13,000 deaths from COVID-19 alone. ‘in Iran. The total devastation is likely to be much greater, as U.S. sanctions have increased dramatically around the world in recent years. Two decades ago, 912 designations were in place internationally; they are now more than 9,000.
Initially, there were indicators that these harsh policies might change. The day after Biden’s inauguration, he published a review of how US sanctions “are unduly hampering responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.” That same day, during her nomination hearing, Janet Yellen said the Treasury “will scrutinize sanctions to ensure they are targeted, effective and minimize unintended consequences.” And then in March, a senior official said that a review of the sanctions program was underway.
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Biden says he wants to reorient his foreign policy away from the “eternal wars” he repeatedly denounced during the election campaign. But on the issue of sanctions, the administration has been downright backslid, and it is impossible to turn the page on eternal wars without stopping these cruel policies.
During a global pandemic, at a time when the United States should act with compassion, the imposition of sanctions regimes takes on particular moral loathing. Members of Congress like Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and local leaders in the United States and around the world understand that sanctions constitute war in other ways. This form of economic warfare only makes the world more dangerous for everyone: any policy that worsens the epidemic everywhere threatens public health everywhere, as uncontrolled epidemics lead to new, more dangerous variants.
During a global pandemic, at a time when the United States should act with compassion, the imposition of sanctions regimes takes on particular moral loathing.
Staggering cruelty defined former President Trump’s advance in devastating sanctions. In Iran, Trump began stepping up draconian unilateral sanctions in 2018 after withdrawing from the Common Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal.
These sanctions wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy, cut off vital medical supplies long before the pandemic, and scared many companies and banks from doing business with the country. This suffering was not incidental to American policy – it was essential.
In Venezuela, the Trump administration has significantly stepped up sanctions. The consequences have been devastating. An article from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-wing think tank, determined that Trump-era sanctions on the country were responsible for about 40,000 additional deaths from 2017 to 2018.
But throughout the pandemic, these Trump-era policies have taken on new gravity. There are signs that US sanctions are hampering Cuba’s ability to obtain the syringes needed to administer the vaccines, as Natasha Hakimi Zapata reported in August. Some of Venezuela’s initial payments to COVAX, the global vaccine distribution effort, appear to have been blocked by US sanctions, although those payments were ultimately made. The populations devastated by the difficulties of the pandemic era, meanwhile, must also face sanctions that strangle the economy.
Any delay in resolving these sanctions means more lives lost, especially as the COVID pandemic rages on. On September 7, more than seven months after the initial review of Biden’s policy, 47 peace and humanitarian organizations sent a letter urging the Biden administration “to implement significant and structural changes to US sanctions policy. “. Activist groups still hoped that a policy review might play a role in bringing the United States closer to granting sanctions relief.
But the Treasury Department’s 2021 sanctions review, released this month, was not a glimmer of hope but an overwhelming, short, and meaningless report.
Based on interviews with âhundreds of sanctions stakeholders,â the report outlines five steps that should be taken to âadapt and modernize the underlying operational architecture through which sanctions are deployedâ. Yet the recommendations are so vague and generic that they approach absurdity. Worse yet, they are still based on the assumption that sanctions regimes should stay in place, but simply be “improved”. The report does nothing to criticize the harsh sanctions regimes Biden inherited from Trump, nor does it indicate any intention to stray from those policies.
Remarkably, he doesn’t mention the COVID pandemic that Biden initially cited as the impetus to conduct such a report in the first place. Those who are agitating for the reduction of sanctions are alarmed. âLooks like someone procrastinated on an assignment and wrote it down the day before,â said Cavan Kharrazian of advocacy organization Demand Progress.
As long as the sanctions are in place, people’s basic needs – from food to medicine to financial stability – will be threatened.
The report is not only short but ambiguous. The report contains a section on the need to âmodernizeâ sanctions, which may at first glance sound like a good thing, but in reality only calls for more investment in sanctions. In this case, modernization means more resources and personnel dedicated to the enforcement of sanctions and infrastructure.
One of the calls for “improvements” is almost grimly: the report urges an updated, less cumbersome website “to offer clearer guidance to better support humanitarian groups and regulated entities, as well as the targets of the sanctions themselves â. I’m sure Iranians desperately seeking care for their loved ones would be reassured to know that the Treasury Department is keen to update the website.
The document also includes a section on the need for “multilateral coordination” among “allies,” which includes “advocating for UN sanctions where possible and appropriate to ensure the global applicability of restrictive measures and amplify the messages “. However, this appears to be aimed at better enforcing the sanctions, not at relaxing them. The report also calls for better communication and coordination with “stakeholders affected by the use of financial sanctions”, but offers few details on what this would entail. Those who advocate the dismantling of sanctions are clearly not among the stakeholders taken seriously in the report.
The Treasury report includes a section on âCalibrating Sanctions to Mitigate Unintended Economic, Political and Humanitarian Impacts,â but this too is vague.
While it is positive that the report calls for more humanitarian exemptions, for example, these exemptions alone cannot alleviate the associated humanitarian crises. Humanitarian exemptions on paper don’t mean much where there is a climate of intimidation and fear surrounding transactions and aid to sanctioned countries. Many companies and institutions over-comply and interrupt interactions, just because of this fear. The sad reality is that, as long as the sanctions are in place, the basic needs of the population, from food to medicine to financial stability, will be threatened.
Ultimately, the best way to mitigate the negative effects of sanctions is to get rid of them. But this option is not even considered in the Treasury report. One of the few data points included shows a dramatic increase in the use of sanctions over the past 21 years. Yet this huge increase is not even necessarily presented as a bad thing.
In fact, there is no criticism of the US sanctions policy, nor any recognition of the continuities from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. This despite the fact that the Biden administration has stepped up some of Trump’s harsh policies; in Cuba, for example, the Biden administration announced new sanctions in August. The report contains only “successful” examples, starting with the sanctions imposed on Iran before the 2015 nuclear deal.
The fact that the Biden administration is unwilling to criticize the maximum pressure campaign put forward by Trump gives the current White House leeway to continue the failed approach. âThere have been some adjustments to some general licenses,â Kharrazian says, âbut in general, when it comes to the broader sanctions, nothing has changed for Venezuela, and maximum pressure sanctions are still heavily enforced. in Iran. All major sanctions are roughly the same as under Trump. “
According to Treasury officials, the lack of self-reflection was intentional. At an Oct. 19 hearing on the report, Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) demand Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo for âone or two specific examplesâ of cases where US sanctions have been ineffective, in order to âimprove the statutes that govern these policiesâ. Adeyemo replied: “The review was focused on the idea that we were looking to the future.” He added: âWe haven’t spent time reviewing individual sanctions policies. “
As the pandemic continues on its ruinous path, there are so many things the United States should and should not be doing: aggressively pushing for the suspension of patent rules and redistributing resources to get so many vaccines in so many. arm as possible. Stopping the evil of sanctions is such an obvious and minimal step, a step that simply requires the United States to stop doing a bad thing. Every day, the Biden administration does not urgently support sanctions relief, lives are lost and senseless violence is enacted. When it comes to the domestic agenda, the left is finally part of the conversation. But at the international level, we are still talking about reports and reviews, not the material dismantling of sanctions regimes that inflict terrible cruelty, at a time when we should respond with solidarity and open arms.