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As Biden Continues Trump's Cruel "Maximum Pressure" Campaign, U.S. Media Treats Crushing Iran's Economy as Anodyne "Diplomacy" "Toolkit"
A harsh sanctions regime on Iran that has killed thousands and was heavily criticized under Trump is now casual bipartisan consensus in Washington.
In U.S. press outlets, the Biden administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran are, by and large, not presented as a moral issue, but as a piece of leverage in a diplomatic effort to get the best possible nuclear deal with Iran. They are ethically neutral, a tool in America’s tool belt, a rook in a three-dimensional game of chess, where the components and pieces are already determined. “U.S. sees ‘snapback’ sanctions threat as tool to deter Iran enrichment,” states a headline in Axios. An unnamed State Department official “said Washington has already laid out what it was prepared to do in terms of lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the nuclear deal and that the ball was more in Tehran's court,” Reuters reports in paragraph five. Buried deep in articles, discussions of U.S. sanctions are presented as boring details, just another “economic” “tool” like tariffs or trade deals.
As we near a possible re-entry into a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, such articles have picked up pace. It’s like watching a horse race: Will or won’t Iran take the steps required to earn a modicum of sanctions relief? (There’s no indication that the U.S. could possibly be the violent actor, as the far more militarily powerful state that is imposing sanctions.) As the New York Times mentions in the opening paragraph of a January 31 article, “The United States and its European allies appear on the cusp of restoring the deal that limited Iran’s nuclear program, Biden administration officials said on Monday, but cautioned that it is now up to the new government in Tehran to decide whether, after months of negotiations, it is willing to dismantle much of its nuclear production equipment in return for sanctions relief.” The article does go on to note that it was the U.S. who violated sanctions in the deal in the first place, and then Trump “added hundreds of additional sanctions,” but this isn’t discussed until the ninth paragraph. And most importantly, there is no examination of the human stakes, nor the fact that Biden does not have to continue Trump-era sanctions, and could end them today if he wanted to.
These omissions are so glaring because U.S. sanctions on Iran are such an unambiguous moral stain, responsible for thousands of unnecessary Iranian deaths, hitting the vulnerable and poor the hardest. As the pandemic hammered Iran, doctors were forced to turn to medical journals to warn that the harsh U.S. policy was measurably increasing coronavirus deaths in that country, by cutting off supplies of vital goods, like syringes and infusion pumps. And indeed, U.S. sanctions have taken an astounding, if difficult to calculate, toll: The Brookings Institution estimates that, between May and September of 2020 alone, “about 13,000 deaths might have been avoided” had the sanctions not been in place. While, today, Iran has access to the Covid vaccine Sinopharm, sanctions are still devastating the country’s medical system, which was well-documented before the pandemic hit, and they’re unleashing a crisis of poverty and inflation.
The cruelty was always the point—the Trump administration was clear about this, employing a twisted logic summarized by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he said in February 2019, “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” And Trump imposed sanctions in a spectacularly cruel and glib fashion, perhaps best captured in the 2018 poster he released, intended to be a Game of Thrones knockoff, which declared, “Sanctions are coming.”
Biden has a different rhetorical style—he does not engage in similar public pronouncements of sadism. Yet, for the entire year Biden has been in office, he has continued these very same “maximum pressure” sanctions, even as the pandemic has raged in Iran. Right after his inauguration, Biden said he would review these and other U.S. sanctions continued from the Trump era, but the Treasury Department’s 2021 Sanctions Review, released in October 2021, gave no indication that the Biden administration plans to shift course. Instead of a reckoning with the Trump administration’s cruelty, it was a vacuous and puffy report that didn’t even mention the Covid pandemic at all, leaving those pushing for sanctions relief disappointed and alarmed. In statements and news conferences, the Biden administration frames those sanctions as necessary leverage to reenter the accord, and occasionally throws criticism at the Trump administration for withdrawing from the JCPOA in the first place.
It is, unfortunately, consistent with Biden’s track record, and the general machinations that drive the “foreign policy” of the federal government, for the White House to only see the issue of sanctions through the lens of what it believes to be national self interest, or a quest for domination. But there’s no rule that the U.S. press has to see it this way. There are entirely other organizing principles that could drive coverage of U.S. sanctions on Iran and renegotiation of the JCPOA—like the concept of radical equality, in which all lives are equally important, regardless of their nationality, or internationalism, in which exploited and oppressed people around the world recognize their common bond. This assertion may seem silly, given how far away it is from how U.S. media outlets talk about “foreign policy.” But that distance is just the point. Here we are, in the middle of one of the most scandalous stories of our time—the U.S. continuing devastating sanctions on Iran during a pandemic—and instead of sounding the alarm, press outlets are talking as though they were U.S. politicians sitting in closed-door meetings in Washington. How has this narrow, “realist” approach to covering such a morally urgent issue constrained our collective imagination of how the U.S. could rectify its harm in the world?
Press outlets did sometimes point out the harmful impact of sanctions—when Trump was in office. The Washington Post, for example, ran a story in March 2020 which noted, “There’s little doubt that U.S. sanctions have hindered Iran’s response to the virus.” But, by and large, this toll is not shaping how the Biden administration’s renegotiation of JCPOA is being covered. When sanctions are discussed as a pressure point in a complex negotiation for a global accord, it seems folly to think of lifting them before a deal is struck. But if they were discussed as a travesty in themselves, one that is entirely reversible, and whose moral responsibility is borne by the United States, and whose human costs are borne by workers and street vendors and teachers and unemployed youth in Iran, how does this change the calculus? When, instead of intrigue and game theory, we say the material reality of how sanctions are affecting people is the most important thing to understand and discuss, how does this shift national discourse? One year into the Biden administration continuing Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions, press outlets are helping ensure we never have these conversations.