President Trump displayed laudable prudence when he walked back an “ordered strike” on military targets in Iran on June 20, after an unmanned U.S. drone was shot down. That makes it all the more regrettable that the Trump administration’s imposition of tougher economic sanctions appears to lack this same consideration.
The new round of sanctions on Iran, along with re-established ones, are crippling the Iranian economy. Inflation has risen to more than 37 percent, and the Iranian rial has fallen by around 70 percent since early 2018. Many Iranians now worry about the availability of food and lifesaving medicines as a result. Economic sanctions can have consequences that are just as tragic as those of military action. For example, 576,000 Iraqi children died prematurely in the five years following economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations in 1990. Economic sanctions can also nudge societies toward devastating overuse of land and energy resources.
Economic sanctions are not intrinsically immoral; in the past they have discouraged military force and leveraged negotiations for peace. But as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church instructs, if economic sanctions are used, it must be with “great discernment” and subject to “strict legal and ethical criteria.” Ethicists and diplomats have argued that for sanctions to be moral, they must have minimal impact on average civilians, especially the vulnerable. For any sanctions, moral or otherwise, to be effective, they need to be structured in accordance with clearly defined objectives.
Current sanctions on Iran do not meet these criteria. If the purpose of the sanctions regime is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the president would need to reconsider his decision to withdraw from the painstakingly negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That agreement, supported by Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops, had halted nuclear-weapons-grade uranium enrichment in Iran. There are signs that the agreement is salvageable. Iran’s foreign minister has said that Iran would return to abiding by the agreement if other countries did the same.
If, however, the goal of these new sanctions is to diminish Iran’s influence, they require further consideration and clear explanation. Reducing Iran’s regional influence and support for terrorist organizations is a defensible goal. But if recent decades have taught us anything, it is that U.S. actions in the Middle East can have unintended and deadly consequences. Well-intentioned but unrealistic goals prevent a flexible framework necessary for incremental relief, essential for bringing countries to the negotiating table. Without a reasonable chance that sanctions will succeed, the United States risks engaging in an unending financial war with Iran that could slip into a military one at the slightest provocation.
The United States can save lives, reduce the risk of escalation into war and increase its chances of stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb by lifting this latest round of sanctions.