|Number 519||December 7, 2012|
This Week: Sanctions, Suffering, and Propaganda
Once again, no room for an Editor's Note this week. Coming soon: A look at the Propaganda ploy known as the "Fiscal Cliff," and the danger of a "Grand Bargain" that is the real looming disaster.
"We argue that sanctions against Iran are not designed to work as an actual alternative to war, but rather are meant to, first of all, appease calls for sabre-rattling at home and by Israel; second, assert economic control over Iranian oil, while curbing Iran's increasing influence in the region; and third, lay the groundwork for a diplomatic due-diligence claim in order to justify any potential military strike."
This is from an article by the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, published on May 14, 2012 in Jadaliyya, the independent Arab ezine. I recommend a look at both Jadaliyya and Raha. The original article from which this quote is lifted can be found HERE.
A 1997 editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine commented that "economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health."
A 1999 article in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs went even further. Entitled "Sanctions of Mass Destruction," the article by professors John Mueller and Karl Mueller remarked that, amid all the fretting about "weapons of mass destruction" there is one "weapon of mass destruction [that] has been largely overlooked." That weapon is economic sanctions, a weapon which "is deployed frequently, by large states rather than small ones, and may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history."
The United States has, since the 1979 revolution in Iran, "employed a policy of sanctions, demonization, containment, and deterrence against Iran, which has impeded Iran's right to development and brought great suffering to its people." That's according to the American Iranian Council, in a recent petition calling for an end to the sanctions.
Both the United States and the European Union have intensified their sanctions against Iran in recent months. To the great shame of the U.S. media, the suffering that has resulted remains almost completely unknown, and thus uncontroversial, in this country. What follows is a small attempt to counter that silence. Remember, as we go, that the people of Iran have done no harm to the United States, and that Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and thus—for better or worse—has the "inalienable right" to have a non-weaponized nuclear program.
The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, writing on June 16th after a trip to Iran, wrote that "largely because of Western sanctions, factories are closing, workers are losing their jobs, trade is faltering and prices are surging. This is devastating to the average Iranian's pocketbook. . ."
Writing in al Jazeera on July 11th, Tehran-based political analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani wrote about traveling around Tehran with the wife of a man with cancer, looking for chemotherapy drugs that were unavailable through normal channels. He reported that "Repeatedly, we were told that there was a shortage of many foreign drugs because of the sanctions, even though the West's punitive measures don't directly target supplies such as medicines." Shabani also reported that "A Gallup poll carried out earlier this year showed almost half of Iranians didn't have enough money to buy food their families needed at times during the past year. That proportion is triple the figure when the first UN sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme were adopted in 2006."
Near the end of a major front-page story in the New York Times of February 7th 2012 appeared the following words:
"The crisis [brought on by the sanctions] has taken a toll on medical care, affecting the middle class as well as the poor. Because of the ever-tighter pressure on any kind of trade with Iran, the black market price of Herceptin, a breast cancer drug, has nearly doubled in the past year, said Lian, a young nurse who works in the cancer ward of one of Tehran's major hospitals (the government regulates the mainstream supply of such drugs, but supplies are very limited).
"The sanctions have also affected medical technology, because radiology machines fall under the 'dual use' provisions of laws aimed at keeping nuclear technology out of Iran. At Shohada Hospital, one of the country's premier institutions, about 1,200 cancer patients a year go without radiological treatment, because the radiology equipment is no longer working and replacement parts cannot be brought into Iran, said Pejman Razavi, a doctor at the hospital."
More recently, on November 2nd, the Times reported in a story datelined Tehran that "Officials here estimate that potentially about six million patients, many of them with cancer, are affected by the [drug] shortages" caused by the sanctions.
An August 2012 report from the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans reported, "As a result of the sanctions, the decrease in oil exports and revenues, and gasoline imports, the Iranian government has had to make changes to its internal capacities. In 2010, the government reduced gasoline and bread subsidies, while the electric rate was increased significantly. With the plunging Iranian currency and staggering inflation, many Iranians have had to cut back on what they purchase and eat. Many Iranians live on monthly government subsidies of $40 - $50 that are no longer sufficient to meet their food and shelter needs. The cost of medical and dental care, medications and basic procedures and service have similarly soared, leaving many an Iranian resident reluctant to obtain much needed medical care."
On October 17th, the Guardian of London published an article headlined, "Iran Sanctions 'Putting Millions of Lives at Risk.'" The opening paragraph read, "Millions of lives are at risk in Iran because western economic sanctions are hitting the importing of medicines and hospital equipment, the country's top medical charity has warned. Fatemeh Hashemi, head of the Charity Foundation for Special Diseases, a non-government organisation supporting six million patients in Iran, has complained about a serious shortage of medicines for a number of diseases such as haemophilia, multiple sclerosis and cancer."
The Guardian quoted U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, who said, "The sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran have had significant effects on the general population, including an escalation in inflation, a rise in commodities and energy costs, an increase in the rate of unemployment and a shortage of necessary items, including medicine. The sanctions also appear to be affecting humanitarian operations in the country. Even companies that have obtained the requisite licence to import food and medicine are facing difficulties in finding third-country banks to process the transactions."
Finally, on the day after Thanksgiving the Washington Post ran an article on the human effects of the sanctions. The Post quoted Hosseinali Shahriari, the head of parliament's health committee, who "noted that the cost of chemotherapy has quadrupled in just the past year, and is now approximately $67,000—out of reach for all but the wealthiest Iranians. 'Practically speaking,' he said, 'we have to tell a majority of such patients to go and die.'"
I gathered all of the above comments by digging around in various databases, using Internet search engines, and checking with advocacy groups. When I looked in the mass media in the United States for articles that actually featured the suffering caused by sanctions—that is, articles that had "Iran" and "sanctions" and either "suffering" or "human toll" in the lead paragraphs—I found exactly two news articles in the nation's newspapers.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously last week (November 29th) to tighten the sanctions against Iran yet again. The Senate bill's sponsor frankly says that the goal is "crippling Iran's economy." Not a word said about the human suffering involved. The Associated Press reports that "The sanctions would designate Iran's energy, port, shipping and ship-building sectors as 'entities of proliferation,' and sanction transactions with these areas." The effects of this action on public health and every other aspect of Iranian life are horrifying and predictable, but we won't see much protest in this country, since the Senate vote was largely ignored by the U.S. media.
In the process of researching the previous story, I was forced to read dozens of media reports. One particular article caught my eye, as it's an example of news coverage that just seems weird... until we recognize that we're seeing the deployment of Propaganda against an O.D.E., or Officially Designated Enemy, of the United States. I'd like to spend a little time taking this article apart, in the hopes that it will help us think about what it may be telling us.
The article in question appeared in the Washington Post on the day after Thanksgiving, Friday November 23rd. Headlined "In Iran, Frustrations Building over Health Care," the lead paragraph reads like this:
"Iran is facing a possible crisis in its health-care system as a result of economic sanctions and alleged government mismanagement of diminishing state funds, according to officials here."
And thus the tone was set: There's a crisis in health care in Iran, with the responsibility split between sanctions, on the one hand, and on the other hand an Iranian leadership that can't—or won't—manage its money properly.
It's remarkable how closely the Post hews to the more-or-less official government line, best summarized in a comment made to the London Guardian in October by an official in the British Foreign Office: "Whilst it is true that sanctions are having an impact on the Iranian population, this is compounded by the Iranian government's economic mismanagement. Iran's leaders are responsible for any impact on their people. . ." [Emphasis added]
I've been writing recently about Just World Theory, which predicts exactly this sort of response in the face of injustice. That is, that the victims have brought their suffering upon themselves. In this case, it's the Iranian people who are guilty, since they tolerate such a bad government. The shortcomings of the Iranian leadership certainly leave a lot to be desired, but the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective reminds us that U.S. sanctions "actually strengthen the regime that they purportedly target" and, in the process, "make grassroots democratic dissent much more difficult for ordinary Iranians living in Iran."
Let's have a look at the rest of this Washington Post article, as it reveals so much.
Criticism from "Officials"?
Despite the opening reference to "officials" alleging "government mismanagement," if one reads the entire article one notices that there is only one "official" cited who makes such allegations. This is the head of parliament's health committee, who is quoted as saying that "the government is playing with our people's health and is not assigning the approved finances." He's not the only official quoted in the article, but all the others speak about the sanctions, and about the difficult conditions under which the Iranian government has struggled in recent months.
About halfway through the article we read, "With oil exports down and Iran's ability to conduct international financial deals severely hamstrung [by sanctions], the bulk of [public] funds have not been delivered by the central bank this year. As a result, the health ministry has received only a fraction of its budget, and care has suffered."
While the one "official" sees this as the government "playing with people's health," the Post article itself, after giving some hints of the severity of the drug shortages in Iran, tells us that the explanation for the shortages is "complicated": "The scarcity derives from a complicated set of circumstances that includes both a heavy dose of Western sanctions, which are aimed at forcing Iran's leaders to halt their uranium-enrichment program, as well as what critics here say are missteps by the government. While some of the anger over the shortages has been directed at the United States and other global powers, there has also been an internal backlash." Indeed, says the Post, "Ordinary citizens have expressed frustration with their government."
Leaving aside the highly-questionable statement about the "aims" of the sanctions (see this week's "Quote" of the Week), let's have a look at these "frustrations."
Criticizing the Government? Or Pleading for Help?
The Post tells us that "critics" are "frustrated" with "missteps by the government," which indicates an "internal backlash." The article does make it appear that Iranians are frustrated, and are criticizing. . . something. But is it the government?
The Post cites the case of "Zohreh, a 60-year-old housewife," who "said the price for her daughter's epilepsy drug has doubled in the past three months. 'When I ask why they have raised the price, they say we have a shortage of the medicine,' she said. 'The government must help poor people like us.'"
So, is this a "critic" of the government? Or is this a citizen asking for, or perhaps expecting, help from her government? Almost at the end of the article we get a hint:
"One of the tenets of the Islamic republic since its inception in 1979 has been universal health care. Any working Iranian is entitled by law to insurance coverage from their employer. Even privatized health care is greatly subsidized and had been relatively affordable until the past several months." Indeed, a 2001 report prepared by officials at the World Bank noted that, at that time, "The Government's focus on primary care has resulted in access to primary care services for almost the entire population and health outcomes that are among the best in the region."
In other words, for 33 years the Iranian government has been "helping poor people like us" get access to health care. What has changed in "the past several months"? What has changed is that the U.S./European sanctions have been strengthened and—in the words of many commentators in this country—have "begun to bite."
While all of this may seem rather weird, I think the weirdest comment appears in the second-to-the-last paragraph: "While sanctions have forced many Iranians to adjust their consumption habits, accepting less from the health-care system is a sacrifice few seem willing to make."
If you have read the previous article in this issue of the Notes, you'll know that this polite phrase—"adjust their consumption habits"—refers to Iranians not having enough money to pay for food and shelter, an "adjustment" which it's unlikely that anyone is "willing" to make.
The Post had made a similar point earlier in the article, saying that "Iranians have demonstrated a resilience to the impact of sanctions in many sectors of the economy. But Iranians have grown accustomed to receiving highly subsidized medical treatment from the government, and they hold authorities responsible for rising prices or unavailable medicines."
Could it be that, rather than an indication of an "internal backlash," what this Washington Post article is really telling us is that the Iranian people expect and demand that their government find a way to continue to help them in the face of sanctions? This interpretation may seem foreign to people in the United States, who are constantly told that we, too, must simply accept "rising prices or unavailable medicines." In our case, the cause is not sanctions, but simply "market forces."
There is much to criticize about the Iranian government, and there are many Iranians, inside and outside of the country, who struggle daily for greater democracy and justice in Iran. The U.S. and European sanctions, in addition to causing enormous suffering, make the struggle for peace and justice in Iran more difficult. The sanctions must be lifted.