08/15/2012 04:03 EDT | Updated 10/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Sanctions Are Good for Iranian Politicians, Not People

The sanctions noose around Iran fully tightened at the beginning of July as the European Union joined the United States to impose a total embargo on all purchases of Iranian oil and place severe restrictions on the country's central bank. These sanctions have resulted in harsh realities for ordinary Iranians. Covering many of the headlines related to Iran is the price of chicken. Consumer products like poultry indeed have reached unprecedented highs, tripling from 22, 000 to 66, 000 Rials in just the last two months. The nation's consumer price index has also risen 22 per cent, and its oil revenues have dropped by almost 50 per cent. Unemployment, particularly among youth, is rampant. Sanctions are clearly affecting ordinary Iranians, but are they achieving their intended purpose?

The aim of Western sanctions is to coerce the Iranian regime to comply with international rules over its nuclear programme. What the Europeans, the US, and Israel ultimately hope to achieve is a powder keg of discontent between the Iranian people and the regime that could go off at any moment, empowering Iranian society to topple the regime.

Alongside this there have also been increasing drumbeats for war, echoing out of Israel, and amongst more conservative American politicians. For now, however, President Barak Obama remains hesitant to tackle the military option two months before the presidential elections. The Obama administration's current policy is to allow the new sanctions more time to produce an effect.

But how much longer should the people of Iran wait? Iranian people have been under the direct effects of sanctions since 1995, when the oil and gas sector was first targeted, to the present day where banking and financial sectors have left private enterprise and ordinary citizens as the primary and overwhelming victims. Imposing what U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has termed "crippling sanctions" renders the well being, human rights, and reform aspirations amongst the Iranian people trivial.

Payam Akhavan, a human rights lawyer and founder of Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre says "[Western politicians] only care about nuclear energy and Iranian oil. In fact, Iranian human rights issues are at the bottom of their list."

As the likelihood of war increases it is important to ensure that the nuclear issue does not overshadow human rights concerns. It is too often easy to demonize the regime for its draconian rule, while forgetting the struggles of individual Iranian lives. Although the West expects Iranians to turn against their regime because of the debilitating effects of economic sanctions, it is particulalry difficult for Iranians to forget the memory of the Iran-Iraq war. The US and the United Nations stood by as Saddam Hussein's Iraq developed weapons of mass destruction while openly using chemical weapons against Iran.

Sanctions are not only a reflection of Western hypocrisy, they further serve to embolden the very factors that make Iran an undemocratic state. While ordinary Iranians struggle to afford their milk, chicken and bread, Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), formed in 1979 to preserve the values of the Islamic Revolution, are thriving. IRGC guardsmen control most relevant ministries within Iran, including the Ministry of Petroleum. The IRGC's economic wing, which controls roughly 50 per cent of the nation's economy, is notorious for operating like a private mafia. The current economic isolationism that the West is subjecting Iran to is aiding their operations.

As most Iranians struggle to feed their families, those inclined towards more nefarious sources can turn to the black market that is directly supplied and controlled by the IRGC. The Guard engages in large-scale smuggling of not only illegal products such as alcohol and opium, but ordinary goods that they import without tariffs or inspection. This economic clout further strengthens the IRGC's rigid military structure, including the paramilitary Basij. The hopes of a civil society uprising in view of economic discontent will only be met by the brute force of these ruthless military arms. This was of course best exemplified by the Basij's bloody crackdown on protesters in 2009.

As one Iranian women's rights activist has stated, "The international community's sole focus on the nuclear issue has resulted in the adoption of policies that inflict great damage on the Iranian people, civil society and women. Militarization of the environment will prompt repressive state policies and the possibility of promoting reform in Iran will diminish."

Since sanctions are seemingly preserving the oligarchic Islamic regime, we have to ask what can we do for Iran, short of attacking the country? (The problems of a military strike being the subject of another op-ed).

I suggest it lies in forming a relationship with Iran based on human rights. We must recognize that the biggest threat to the Iranian regime will not come from the West, but from the Iranian people. We must look to their individual struggles and see how we can properly sanction the individuals responsible for diminishing their freedoms, not embolden those individuals.

It is time to redirect our focus away from the quantity of chickens distributed across Iran, to the implications of focusing solely on the nuclear policy of the Iranian regime. When the nuclear capabilities of Iran become the sole concern of the international community, it becomes easy to forget the murderous bureaucracy that remains in place. We can only presume that if Iran were to abide by international standards for its nuclear program that the West would easily forget the other egregious issues facing the Iranian state.

After all, these sanctions are not holding into account the actions of Iranian Justice Minister Esmail Shooshtari, or Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohamadi who commissioned the deaths of more than 15,000 political prisoners in the 1980s. A culture of impunity reigns within the Iranian regime, and sanctions against the country's nuclear program only work to further intensify this.