15 Apr Episode 106: The Sanitization of Sanctions
Citations Needed | April 15, 2020 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: And don’t hurt Adam’s feelings.
Adam: And don’t hurt my feelings, my very thin skin. Do not do it.
Nima: As COVID-19 continues to endanger the health of people throughout the world, it also magnifies a long-existent global humanitarian crisis: The use of sanctions by the United States and other powers as a weapon of war. In Iran, one of the countries most devastated by the contagion, sanctions have strangulated the supply of medical equipment crucial to testing the population and treating those who are infected, inspiring some members of our political establishment to finally call for sanctions to be eased.
Adam: And while these pleas are necessary, they’re woefully inadequate and long overdue. Sanctions aren’t just a problem when there’s a pandemic. Iran had been subjected to U.S. and UN-imposed sanctions long before the appearance of COVID-19 — as has Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, and far too many other countries deemed Official Enemies of the United States State Department and its allies, resulting in economic destabilization, vulnerability to U.S. militarism, starvation, illness, and oftentimes mass deaths.
Nima: Amid these life-or-death stakes, media and think tanks’ responses to sanctions range from mere handwringing to outright hawkish bloodlust. Rather than decisively condemning sanctions as ruthless acts of economic warfare, American media largely perpetuate the narrative that sanctions are a necessity, and often a force for good, in the effort to punish and “change the behavior” of perceived “rogue” regimes. Meanwhile, little criticism is offered outside of tepid suggestions that those sanctions should be tweaked or changed to make them a little less egregious.
Adam: On today’s show, we’re going to examine how the U.S. levies sanctions to undermine countries opposed to U.S. hegemony, how sanctions are laundered as a benign quote-unquote “alternative” to war in the media, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the preexisting, decades-long barbarism of U.S. foreign policy.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by two guests. First, Keyvan Shafiei, a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department at Georgetown University.
Keyvan Shafiei: Well, we talk about oftentimes our prospects of military escalation or military conflict, we talk about negotiations falling apart, and various administrations pursuing sanctions as a disciplinary tool but we don’t talk about the mass suffering and death that the use of sanctions inflict on everyday people. Their stories have for a long time, the stories of people from Iran, the stories of people from Iraq, the stories of people from Venezuela, are oftentimes marginalized in mainstream press.
Nima: We’ll also speak to writer and educator Hoda Katebi, a community organizer and abolitionist working with the No War Campaign and Believers Bail Out.
Hoda Katebi: When we’re thinking about war everyone’s, like, okay, well, it’s easy, you know, you don’t want your money to go toward war, you want your tax money to go toward the healthcare industry or education, but when it comes to sanctions, the only thing that your tax dollars really have any relationship with is paying Steve Mnuchin, who is Secretary Treasurer, who administers sanctions. So it’s difficult just because of how opaque, it just feels so intangible. What’s really important is to be able to bring the effects of sanctions home and really sort of uplift those stories and uplift the everyday experiences of everyday Iranians who have to deal with sanctions.
Nima: As we start this episode, we wanted to give a very — and I mean very — quick history of sanctions. And here I get to return to my days as a classicist to note that the first recorded use of sanctions as a tool of state policy — in this case, city-state policy — was when Athens, the city-state of Athens in Ancient Greece imposed a trade embargo on its neighbor Megara in 432 B.C as Thucydides as written. This first case study immediately revealed something about sanctions, they are rarely “effective,” as it were, in achieving their desired goal. In the case of Athens, their embargo eventually sparked a 27-year-long Peloponnesian War that Athens lost.
But in the modern sense, the term “sanctions,” first employed in its current definition in the 1890s by European pacifists looking for an alternative to war, entered the lexicon of international economic statecraft — that is, a collective, oftentimes extranational denial of economic access designed to enforce a particular global order. This came into effect in the early 20th Century. But sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations in the 1930s failed to meet their objective of forcing Mussolini to stop occupying what is now Ethiopia. In the U.S., trade sanctions against Japan in 1940–41 were partly responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
And this gets to what we’re really talking about on today’s show. The Council on Foreign Relations defines sanctions as, quote, “a lower-cost, lower-risk, middle course of action between diplomacy and war,” end quote. This is a generous description, a false assumption that sanctions are the kinder, gentler machine-gun hand of the international order.
Adam: Broadly speaking, sanctions have various forms. They include embargoes on the import and/or export of certain goods, software and technology. These can be military, economic, or otherwise e.g., equipment needed to develop missiles for an atomic weapon or oil or timber. They include arms embargoes e.g. weapons and military vehicles; permit requirements for goods, software and technology that could be used in arms programs; restrictions on loans and credit for certain people and countries; freezing the assets of certain people and companies; and travel and visa restrictions.
There are a number of tactics that give the imposition of sanctions as a softer, more palatable veneer. These include quote-unquote “humanitarian exemptions”: The sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine, or medical devices is not affected by the sanctions. This is meant to appear as a benevolent carve-out, but as we will discuss in detail later this is almost always never the case. Due to the integrated nature of most economies, most companies, most government purchasing decisions these so-called “humanitarian carve-outs” are never really exploited because companies just assume not come close because if you run afoul of sanctions the punishment is very severe. For example, Venezuela has asked the U.S. to lift sanctions on its national airline in order to fly the Venezuelans stranded in the United States back to Caracas, where they’re far more likely to receive better healthcare during the COVID pandemic and they have not permitted them to do this so for each sort of nominal carve-out there are ten different ways in which it doesn’t really work and then for things you want or think are important like banning an airline, you realize that’s a key function in which people go to other countries to receive medical treatment or travel to meet family etcetera, etcetera and it basically stops most economic activity in its tracks.
Nima: In Iran, sanctions currently prevent international financial transactions and shipping. As a result, any trade, including that of medicines or medical equipment is almost impossible despite these so-called “humanitarian carve-outs.” Several companies that supply the medical equipment required to fight coronavirus have stopped being shipped to Iran because international banks won’t process these transactions. That is one part of sanctions, it makes banks unwilling to even attempt to run afoul of them. Another thing that actually limits humanitarian pathways is that companies are spooked by the complex matrix of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its partners, which are very difficult to navigate on purpose, in addition to Trump’s bellicose threats to closely watch transactions in Iran, for instance, to make sure they don’t violate sanctions. This creates a climate of intimidation that makes humanitarian exceptions pretty much moot.
Adam: There’s also exceptions, or rather, I should say they have what’s called “targeted sanctions” or sanctions on individuals, which the Obama administration did to Venezuela before Trump came in and did the whole shebang in 2017 but from about 2013–2014 to 2017, there was these kind of targeted individual sanctions. And these are not as blunt and don’t cause as much damage but what they do, and it’s kind of hard to quantify this, but you talk to people at Center for Economic Policy Research, they wrote in their report on Venezuelan sanctions in 2019, which we’ll have in the show notes, what they do is they’re a predecessor to bigger sanctions, and they serve the function of spooking long-term investment because they’re almost always followed by harsher sanctions. And so even supposedly targeted sanctions that target certain evil bad guys, like freezing their bank accounts, are usually a throat clearing before the kind of main event and what this does is the effect of this is it scares foreign investment, which is really the goal. Let’s say that I’m a foreign investor in Europe who is subject to second order sanctions, which is to say if they deal with countries that the U.S. deems bad then they themselves are subject to sanctions. If I’m thinking about building a road or an energy dam, if I see these targeted sanctions, as an investor, I’m scared away, which is their primary goal, their primary goal is to send a signal that this country is or is about to be considered a pariah state that is going to be subject to the brute force of the U.S. State Department, U.S. Treasury.
Nima: The United States is imposing sanctions on a great many countries, but to really look at what’s going on here, we have to realize that those countries are the ones that are deemed official state enemies of the U.S., which really just means they present a potential or even just perceived threat to U.S. hegemony across the globe. What we’re talking about here are countries like Russia, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, and the sanctions imposed on these countries are justified by political rhetoric that says these countries are in violation of international law. They commit human rights abuses, they are threatening to their neighbors in their dangerous neighborhoods, and they are complete, along with a set of stock bromides for imposing these sanctions. What we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about some of these and how they relate to the justification of sanctions in our political and media culture. The use of many of these kinds of justifications why sanctions must be imposed on these countries that are deemed threatening dates back to 1976. As Sarah Lazare, friend of the show, Adam’s wife, notes in her own recent review of Iran sanctions during the era of COVID-19, she wrote this in In These Times, quote:
Democrats also paved the way for Trump’s actions. The 1976 International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), passed by a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, allows the president to declare a national emergency and impose sanctions without putting them to a congressional vote. President Jimmy Carter was the first to invoke the act against Iran, in response to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, and all six succeeding administrations — including Democratic presidencies — have done so. It is this framework that has created the present-day justification for the Trump administration’s devastating sanctions on Iran.
Adam: So the primary moral pretext about sanctions, now that we’ve sort of established what they are, we need to talk about the narrative of sanctions, which is that they are designed to promote human rights and to, quote, “stand with the people of country X.” This is a frame we’ve heard time and time again.
Nancy Pelosi: The American people through their elected representatives are here today to stand with the people of Iran, and people all over the world who yearn to express their opinions.
Man #1: This body has an obligation to stand with the people of Iran and demand accountability.
Donald Trump: America stands with the people of Iran.
Man #2: You like the move by the president, do you?
Man #3: I’d do anything that shows that we stand with the people of Iran who hate their leadership, who are being oppressed by the leadership.
Man #4: For the president to stand with the people of Iran in this period when they’re out in the streets, I think that’s good.
Woman #1: So, as you know, we stand with the people of Venezuela, and it’s time for Maduro to go. We made that very clear.
Man #5: I stand with the people of Venezuela, in calling for an end to the senseless violence.
Man #6: Look, you’re facing a choice. Do you stand with Maduro, the tyrant who is on his way out, who is losing power, or do you stand with the people of Venezuela? Do you stand with the Constitution?
Man #7: In Florida, we must continue to stand with the people of Venezuela against the Maduro dictatorship.
Man #8: Under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the United States has been standing with the people of Venezuela.
Adam: This idea that the population of a country is somehow begging for the United States to sanction its government and to cut off its economy is almost always understood to be total bullshit. That even countries, so there’s polling in countries like Venezuela and Iran, there’s independent polling, right? North Korea, you can’t really do it but in countries like Iran and Venezuela, you can poll the people and upwards of 80 percent, poll after poll in Venezuela show that the people of the country oppose sanctions. Now, there’s always going to be the occasional MEK weirdo who loves them but generally speaking the population, even if they loathe the government, doesn’t like to have their economy crippled, right? I mean, it’s fair to say Nima and I loathe Donald Trump, but I wouldn’t want to slash the economy by a third to somehow delegitimize and punish the quote-unquote “Trump regime.”
Nima: This also has to be understood when looking at the historical role that sanctions has played in our political imagination. What I mean by that is that the eventual imposition of international sanctions, long overdue, on countries like Rhodesia and South Africa that were run by white supremacist governments, colonial white supremacist governments, those sanctions are deemed in our media discourse to be the same kind of sanctions that are imposed on countries that the United States actually deems enemy countries. South Africa was not deemed an enemy country, mind you, by the United States, plenty of business interactions, Thatcher and Reagan did not want to impose sanctions and did not want to abide by an international boycott. But those boycotts and those sanctions were called by the people of South Africa, mostly the black people in South Africa, the people who are being deliberately oppressed by their own government, and that the only way that they were going to change that behavior is by international sanction. That was the call. We see a very similar thing in Palestine with the BDS call. That is different, wholly different than the United States government or the British government imposing sanctions on another country to punish it for its behavior that is detrimental to U.S. or British interests. Those are different things.
Adam: So even Datincorp, which is a right-wing pro-opposition polling firm in Venezuela, that’s oftentimes cited to justify hostility towards the government, found that almost 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose Trump administration sanctions. So the Venezuelan people are not calling for sanctions, the Palestinian people were calling for sanctions on Israel, black South Africans were calling for sanctions on the white regime in South Africa. But there is not a meaningful constituency in any of these countries, and again, you can poll Venezuela and Iran, that are calling for these things. And of course, why would they? They killed tens of thousands of people and increased levels of poverty to unimaginable heights. So this is typical, right? You sort of take a human rights good sounding thing, and then you remove all power asymmetry, because settler colonies are on the same power footing as other settler colonies, like say, for example, Israel or South Africa. Settler colonies in the west or in European countries are not on the same power footing of countries they’re trying to overthrow, and again, there has not been demonstrated a meaningful constituency, a majority constituency of people who are begging to have their economy ruined. People in exile are expats in the country, that live in the country, that have a tendency to be wealthier, notwithstanding, but the people actually live there do not support the sanctions by and large.
Nima: Another one of these tropes is that governments must be sanctioned in order to, quote, “change their behavior.” We hear this time and time again. Of course, bellicose politicians often cite sanctions as a method by which to force a foreign government to stop acting in a way that is most frustrating to the United States and its economic and military interests. There are, of course, countless examples of politicians invoking this phrase to justify sanctions here are really just a few. In 2017 Republican senators John McCain and Rob Portman lobbied Donald Trump to maintain sanctions on Russia. In a statement, Portman said, quote, “To lift the sanctions on Russia for any reason other than a change in the behavior that led to those sanctions in the first place would send a dangerous message to a world already questioning the value of American leadership and the credibility of our commitments after eight years of Obama administration policies” end quote. An article in The National Interest from August 2018 was headlined, “Sanctions Should Be About Changing Behavior — Not Just Punishment.” And more recently, in January of 2020, after ordering the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, Trump announced that his administration would impose new sanctions on Iran saying this, quote, “These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior.”
Adam: Yeah, discussions that sanctions are meant to change a country’s behavior are pretty disingenuous. The goal of sanctions is never really to get a foreign government to change its behavior but rather to ravage the country so its people, in theory, ideally as a precursor to overthrowing the government. In other words, and maybe sort of trite words, cruelty is the point. The goal of sanctions is to harm a population. So the general framework of most liberal human rights discourse and neoconservative discourse which are for the most part interchangeable, right? Which is why you have Samantha Power doing events with former Bush officials and Henry Kissinger, right? Is that the bad government is effectively one big hostage situation, that there’s the evil regime that’s a handful of mafioso cabals and they’re holding everyone hostage in a sort of totalitarian dictatorship, right? It’s a view of politics, that’s effectively Hunger Games. And sometimes there’s a bit of truth to that. I suppose there’s a bit of truth to that in all governments, but what they fail to realize is that (a) in many times these governments do have some support or they have broad support in certain sectors and that (b) you can’t really punish a regime without by definition punishing the people who are sort of presumed to be innocent in this hostile situation. And so their logic is that of an FBI agent at Waco, where we’re just going to burn the fucker down, because that’s the only option we have, because relenting to the evil regime is just not an option. And so mass punishment becomes the only tool you can have, you have to destroy the village to save it.
And of course, the problem with this is that if they went into these countries and bombed, the CEPR report — we’re going to link to — showed, I think, somewhat conservatively, 40,000 deaths resulting from Trump’s sanctions on Venezuela, because the economy basically came to a shutdown — it wasn’t quite like the COVID shut down for the rest of the world but it’s similar, you basically just can’t operate an economy under those kinds of sanctions — that if we bombed, you know, four cities and killed 40,000 people with four bombs, there would be a discussion and outrage about it. But what sanctions permit you to do is they allow you to sort of kill people indirectly. So you can maintain this sort of liberal veneer, but achieve effectively the same goal, which is to kill people, it’s to harm them, it’s to make them know that they need to be a compliant actor, and there’s not even sense that they can do behavior to get out of the sanctions, right? They’re sort of just punitive for their own sake, and I think that’s true for most of these sanctions. The goal is that they don’t like countries that don’t comply with U.S. hegemony so on the hostage model where the evil regime takes everyone hostage, it’s important understand that that may sound good and it sounds lofty, and it sounds kind of liberal, everybody wants to free hostages from their captor, what’s important to understand is that for people in power, the people calling the shots at the State Department, CIA, White House and Congress is they don’t give a fuck about any of that stuff. They just see a power entity, they see one power entity unit that’s non compliant and they want to make it compliant. And sanctions are an extremely cheap and not bad in a public relations way where you’re not sending troops, right? You’re not seeing dead bodies on TV necessarily.
Nima: As long as they’re not showing the dead bodies of the people that sanctions are killing.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. So a way of looking at it is not in the kind of precious liberal human rights discourse, which is all phony anyway, is to think about it from the perspective of those in power, how their decisions are made, right? Because even when Venezuela had the most pristine, highest rated, five gold star, platinum elections, they were still trying to overthrow the government back in 2002 when the U.S. backed a coup. So obviously, they don’t care about the sort of liberal particulars of a country, right?
Nima: It wasn’t a punishment for lack of democracy. It wasn’t a punishment for human rights.
Adam: It was a punishment due to lack of submission to U.S. hegemony. So, I think what’s important in these debates, we’ve talked about this before, is there’s no point in discussing politics in terms that no one in power is actually speaking about. It is reverse engineered post facto moral pretense. Nobody actually cares about the democratic and human rights abuses of these countries. They just don’t like that they don’t submit to U.S. hegemony, all the kind of high-minded Samantha Power claptrap is something we make up after the fact, right? It’s something that makes us feel good. And you saw this when Samantha Power wrote a New York Times column, former UN Ambassador under Obama and National Security Adviser Samantha Power, who we’ve talked about a lot on the show, because she’s really the biggest phony of this whole universe, on April 7, 2020, wrote a column in The New York Times with all this sort of fancy high-minded rhetoric about how the U.S. needs to take a leadership role on the COVID-19 crisis and that China sort of couldn’t do it and they don’t have the moral authority, and that the U.S. — yes, even under Trump — must show leadership. Now, the word “sanctions” is nowhere to be found in this piece.
Nima: Not one single mention of the word sanctions, not one single mention of Iran where sanctions are hitting the hardest and where, the whole kind of framework of her peace is about COVID-19, where we know COVID-19 is devastating that country, not one mention of sanctions at all, and certainly not sanctions on Iran.
Adam: And the most elegant way that the U.S. right now could alleviate suffering is to get rid of our sanctions on the Global South at least temporarily, at least for a four-month period, right? If you want to go back to murdering children, fine do it later. But even this form of sanctions—nowhere to be found in the piece, no mention of sanctions at all, which of course, which really kind of gives away the game, right? The goal is to not show—when she says we need American leadership, she doesn’t mean it pursuant relieving suffering, what she doesn’t want is China to have a public relations win once this is all said and done. That China was the global savior, because then that necessarily impugns her high-minded American human rights imperialist bullshit that she pushes and so the optics are what’s important. America has to sort of look like it’s quote-unquote “leading,” whatever that means, it usually means just bullying people.
And this sanctions erasure is on full display with the two main standard bearers of bourgeois liberal consensus engineering, which are NPR in The New York Times. So NPR did a story on Venezuela and hospitals lacking basic necessities, called, “Many Venezuelan Hospitals Lack Basics To Function, Let Alone Handle COVID-19.” The story of course, did the whole authoritarian leader routine, how the regime can’t handle the outbreak of COVID. Now they don’t have basic supplies, of course, left unmentioned is that the U.S. sanctions have completely crippled the economy. They didn’t mention sanctions one time. They even had a pretty hilarious—if it wasn’t so depressing, it would be hilarious—euphemism for sanctions. They wrote, quote:
This week, UNICEF delivered 90 tons of medical supplies to Venezuela. Maduro’s closest allies — Russia, Cuba and China — have also provided support. Yet securing the vast amount of international aid that Venezuela needs is complicated by geopolitics.
The U.S. and nearly 60 other nations do not recognize Maduro as president. The coronavirus emergency, coupled with rock-bottom prices for oil, a top source of Venezuela’s government revenue, has weakened his position, prompting the U.S. to intensify efforts to drive him from power.
Notice they never mentioned sanctions here. Sanctions are just not an issue. And of course, it is the key issue. It’s the central issue. But again, we cannot blame ourselves. It always has to be the Official Authoritarian Regime who is to blame. The New York Times had a similar article on April 10. That committed a similar infraction, though it briefly mentioned sanctions. It said, quote:
[Maduro] has attributed the country’s medical supply shortage to sanctions, which President Trump has imposed to try to push Mr. Maduro out.
Analysts and critics claim this assertion has only some weight.
Which analysts which critics we don’t know. The article goes on to say, quote:
Sanctions have sometimes delayed the delivery of essentials, but the government could go through aid organizations to get what it needs, said Feliciano Reyna, founder of the Venezuelan nonprofit Action for Solidarity.
Action for Solidarity, of course, is a pro-regime change organization, anti-Maduro organization of Venezuela, so it’s just brushed away. This of course, is buried in roughly paragraph 17. And the whole thing centers on how the regime is covering up this and that, the sort of usual kind of narrative about the evil regime covering up the deaths. But of course, when you totally cripple a country by effectively hijacking its oil company with Citgo and then preventing it from exporting oil, and preventing it from importing medical supplies and other essential oils, then of course, what’s logically going to follow is they’re going to have people die. And sanctions are not only not blamed or sort of centered. I know because we can always sort of debate what percent is the government, which percent is the sanctions, but that conversation is not even one they want to have. It’s just, there’s a narrative to push and it’s a very clear and dogmatic narrative and that’s that the U.S. can really do no wrong and in fact, and indeed we are the humanitarians seeking to help them.
Nima: Well, exactly. And it gets back actually to something that was said about sanctions by George Lopez, professor of government at Notre Dame University, which is this quote, “Sanctions have become a very quick way for people to say to their constituents, ‘By God, we did something.’” And that’s really the point. It’s to say, ‘Oh, we are acting in the best interest of the people and against our enemies but we don’t want to drop bombs because we are the noble ones and we are showing the toughness but the determined human rights respect,’ while actually silently devastating economies and killing many, many people.
Adam: They are spraying a house full of gasoline and they’re turning around and saying ‘Let’s lead the fire brigade.’ I mean, this is why no one outside of New York City and Washington DC, outside of the United States, no one takes this moral preening seriously, the U.S. is seen correctly as a bunch of fucking hypocrites and scolds that has even they’re sort of lauded human rights experts like Samantha Power go around doing, you know, speeches about Rwanda and saving the fucking baby seals and all the shit that people eat up, no one believes this because the thing we can do the most is stop the suffering that we’re inflicting ourselves right now and we just refuse to do that because Samantha Power supports sanctions on Venezuela, Samantha Power supports sanctions on Iran and so she can’t say that. And it’s not like this is a fringe position. There was a letter signed by Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, Sanders, Warren, a few weeks ago that asked Trump to cease sanctions on Iran. Elizabeth Warren is not the radical fringe of the far left and Biden refused to endorse this. Now Samantha Power is a Biden appointee in waiting, Samantha Power endorsed Joe Biden. Samantha Power has not said one word about Iran in the last four months since the COVID crisis started two months ago. She hasn’t said a single word about it. So this is not a, to be clear, relieving sanctions on Iran right now is not a fringe position, it’s an extremely normal, mainstream position. But even our heralded human rights advocates have said exactly nothing about it.
Nima: Exactly. Iran recently asked the IMF for what is actually a pretty small loan of $5 billion to help fight COVID-19 and the U.S. has already vowed to veto that loan. So these kinds of sanctions, these kinds of embargoes, this kind of economic warfare extends beyond any sort of rational, punitive measure or behavior changing, it is purely hostage taking. Sometimes the quiet part is said quite loudly by U.S. officials. For instance, last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said outright that sanctions wouldn’t even be likely to change the behavior of the countries that they target. Instead, the aim is to cause such suffering and civil unrest that the countries and their governments are destabilized, thereby facilitating the destruction of these governments that are not allied with the U.S. On a podcast hosted by Michael J. Morrell, a former acting director of the CIA, Pompeo admitted that sanctions would not actually persuade Iranian leaders to, quote, “change their behavior.” He said this, quote, “I think what can change is the people can change the government.” This is nothing new and certainly not unique to Trump officials. Back in April of 2013, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said before the Senate a very similar thing, that the increasingly harsh sanctions levied upon Iran actually had no effect on the decision making process of the Iranian leadership, yet had produced considerable damage to the Iranian economy and resulted in increased, quote, “inflation, unemployment, [and the] unavailability of commodities” for the Iranian people. This, he said, is entirely the point. Responding to Maine Senator Angus King, who asked about the impact sanctions have on the Iranian government itself, Clapper explained that the intent of sanctions is to spark dissent and unrest in the Iranian population. He said this, quote, “What they do worry about though [the Iranian government] is sufficient restiveness in the street that would actually jeopardize the regime. I think they are concerned about that.” It is no wonder, of course, why Clapper referred, in his own report given to Congress, he called this economic warfare, quote, “regime threatening sanctions” end quote.
Adam: And so the historical examples of sanctions is also, of course, that it’s a precursor to regime change. There pretty much hasn’t been a regime change operation we’ve done where there aren’t some proceeding sanctions, one of the most famous cases were the sanctions in the 1970s that were used to destabilize Chile which set the stage for a US-led coup. In 1973, the U.S. overthrew Salvador Allende’s socialist government and replaced it with capitalist military dictator Augusto Pinochet after two years of sanctions, which Nixon ordered in an effort to quote-unquote “make the economy scream.” Now sort of an infamous quote. That resulted in mass privatization and a reign of terror over the Chilean people. Sanctions of course preceded the invasion of Iraq, in many ways sort of softened the country up, made it easier to invade, which was the real goal. Those sanctions began in the late ‘90s up until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. By the time of the invasion, the sanctions had killed between half a million to a million people, depending who you believe, mostly children. Prior to the sanctions, the U.S. of course had bombed Iraq several times, the general idea is that if you weaken an economy you by definition weaken the military and you make it easier to invade later. So it’s a way of just weakening a government because again, you have to look at this from the perspective of a U.S. general or a U.S. policymaker, which is, these people don’t give a shit about the moral properties of a country, they care about one thing and one thing only: Can this country challenge my will, can it challenge American capital, can it challenge American military? And that’s all that matters. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat, Nazi regime, communist regime, doesn’t matter. That’s the only thing that matters to them is can you challenge my authority? And if the answer is yes, then sanctions become a readily available option and all the moral dressing is just something the eggheads in the State Department and Human Rights Watch, they come up with that later, right? That’s not really the goal here. And so, this violent rhetoric, like we heard in Chile about “make the economy scream” this violent rhetoric is something we hear all the time.
Man #1: President Trump has been very successful in tactics that have created pain in Iran.
Man #2: His policy with regard to Iran, getting China and Russia to stand with him against Iran, strangling them with these sanctions has actually brought them to the table.
Man #3: America is strangling Iran’s economy.
Man #4: Crippling Iran.
Man #5: Strangling Iran.
Man #6: Iran is being choked off.
Woman #1: Loosen the noose around Iran.
Woman #2: Today, U.S. officials continue to press other countries to tighten the noose around Iran with tougher international sanctions.
Nima: This rhetoric of “strangling” and “crippling,” of “tightening the noose,” this language of lynching in the discourse about sanctions is nothing new. Back on October 10, 1951, the Wall Street Journal reported on the then-recent moves by the United States and Britain to counter through sanctions and divestment, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, which had long been controlled by British corporations and the crown. This was the Wall Street Journal’s headline, “Noose Around Iran. It Tightens Fast as Curbs on Dollars and Pounds Stall Imports. Will Mossadegh Take heed?” We see this tightening the noose rhetoric continuing in recent years. From the New York Daily News in 2012, “Tightening the noose on Iran” said this, quote, “The good news: Sanctions against Iran are biting, and more are coming soon.” We also saw the Financial Times have the headline, “Time to tighten the noose on Iran.” On March 1, 2012, Jordan Weissmann, associate editor at The Atlantic, wrote a piece entitled, “How to Choke Iran Without Killing the World Economy.”
Adam: In February of 2019, The Economist took the mask off completely and wrote a headline saying, “Juan Guaido and Donald Trump are betting that sanctions will topple the regime before they starve the Venezuelan people.” So they actually skipped the choking metaphor and went straight to the starvation.
Nima: This idea of suffocating, of strangling, choking, starving is heard time and again and not just from Republican politicians. We should remember that during the Obama administration, Susan Rice said on PBS NewsHour telling Ray Suarez that the then-latest round of UN Security Council sanctions, this is in June of 2010, that these sanctions on Iran would, quote, “tighten the noose with a new inspections regime [and] new restrictions on its financing and commercial activities.” This kind of rhetoric goes back even farther than just the ‘50s. William Morgan Shuster’s 1912 book, entitled The Strangling of Persia, was a blistering indictment of early 20th century imperial interference of Russia and Great Britain, two superpowers wary of the prospect of financially responsible and politically autonomous in Iran during the aftermath of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Shuster wrote the scathing criticism of imperialism and how powerful empires seek to subjugate foreign nations in their endless campaign for hegemony, and he called it, as I said, The Strangling of Persia.
Adam: Yeah, so there’s a bit of a double game here, right? Hillary Clinton did it all the time, she always talked about crippling sanctions, where people talk about these things in extremely violent terms and then when you call them on it, you’re, like, so you want to cripple the Iranian? ‘Oh, no, no, the regime,’ it’s always ‘No, no there’s this mysterious regime.’ It’s like, okay, that’s not true, though, you know that economies are integrated and that regimes are not isolated from their economies. So they’re constantly trafficking this, this violent metaphor, but when you call them on it, it’s ‘Oh, no, it’s an alternative to war.’ Well, it sure sounds like war.
Nima: Sanctions are never ideal. Maybe sometimes they’re a bit brutish, they don’t always stay as targeted as they could be but really, this kind of rhetoric just easily leads to what in 1996, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on a CBS News interview, that the deaths of more than half a million Iraqi children from U.S. sanctions was a “hard choice” but “worth it” in the effort to “punish” Saddam Hussein. So you see this idea that sometimes this isn’t what we wish would happen, but there’s always some kind justification for allowing economic warfare to continue.
To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by our first guest, Keyvan Shafiei, a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department at Georgetown University. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Keyvan Shafiei. Keyvan, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Keyvan Shafiei: Delighted to be here. Thanks for having me.
Adam: So we’ve spent the better half of the hour talking about the gap between public perception about sanctions and what the real effects are and how people don’t really begin to internalize that, how the media sterilizes it. Before we get into that, I want to sort of start off with what the current state of the efforts are for activists trying to organize a campaign to end sanctions in Iran, at the very least — and I stress least — during the COVID-19 crisis. Can you please tell us what the goals of the hashtag #EndCOVIDSanctions campaign is, who is involved and what is the traction so far in getting people in the quote-unquote “mainstream” to listen and to care and to kind of change public perception around this topic?
Keyvan Shafiei: Sure. Yeah. So there has been a sort of social media Twitter storm in recent weeks with the hashtag #EndCOVIDSanctions, which was started by Hoda Katebi and some other folks who have been involved in various forms of activism related to Iran. And this is mostly a grassroots effort and my involvement, at least with the campaign, has been at the level of grassroots. So just to give you a bit of backstory, I wrote a story in early February in the American Prospect about the maximum pressure campaign that the Trump administration has been pursuing in recent years. Wherein every few months basically since 2017 they slap a new round of sanctions on Iran. These sanctions over the years have completely shut off Iran’s access to import of basic goods and to various forms of export as well like oil and natural gases, which they rely on financially for the most part. And these goods include also medical and humanitarian goods and that’s something that hopefully we’ll talk about more. But as the global attention started sort of shifting away from the military escalations that the U.S. was carrying out in early January and toward the outbreak of coronavirus, I followed up that piece with another story about what the sanctions were specifically doing to aggravate the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran. You might know that Iran has become a hot zone for COVID-19, the Health Ministry of Iran, for instance, reported recently that nearly one Iranian dies every 10 minutes from coronavirus and as of the last day of March, March 31st, reported number of illnesses due to coronavirus had reached nearly 45,000, with as many as 3,000 deaths in official estimates, which is a staggering figure, but the actual figures are very likely much bigger than that. So when I first published my story, I was contacted by Hoda Katebi, who is an Iranian activist and organizer in the Chicago area and she asked that I participate in the campaign and help spread this hashtag basically, wherein the aim was to try and raise as much as awareness as we can about what the sanctions are doing to the Iranian people right now during this pandemic. A number of organizations soon thereafter joined the effort. These are organizations like Move On, NIAC, Win Without War, nearly 20 other groups, and there was an outreach effort to contact members of Congress, which we were successful with and we were able to get through to representative Ilhan Omar and AOC and Bernie Sanders and some others who have been outspoken about what the sanctions are doing to Iran and the fact that they are for the most part hurting the Iranian people. So the letter was released by some of these folks. Some of the signatories of the letter included people like Elizabeth Warren, who had previously supported the sanctions on Iran in 2017, Ayanna Pressley, Senator Ed Markey and others. And the letter garnered a lot of attention as well on social media. And it was an effort to officially demand that the Trump administration, and Secretary Mnuchin in particular, lift the sanctions on Iran. That letter has gathered some signatures, I think 35 nearly and it has been sent off to the powers that be, but one of the things that we have mostly been focusing on at the grassroots level is to just raise awareness and to share as many stories as possible with people on social media about what the sanctions are doing to not just 80 million people, but our families, our parents, our loved ones, our friends who are still back home and who are living life or trying to live life under the weight of the sanctions, especially during this pandemic. So, the campaign has been partially about raising that kind of awareness, making sure stories are getting out there and people are aware of how these economic measures are concretely affecting Iranian people. But there has been also an institutional effort to reach out to members of Congress and to try and get them to rally behind a temporary suspension of these sanctions and we’re asking for 120 days of suspensions so that relief can flow into the country because the situation, as I’ve talked about this in my work, but others have also reported on it, is really, really bad and grim on the ground right now. Hospitals are overwhelmed, medical staff do not have basic protective gear, oftentimes physicians are foregoing wearing their own masks to give it to their patients, they don’t have drugs that they need to treat patients, they don’t have ventilators. In a lot of ways comparable to the situation in the US, but far worse because the government can’t do trade with international partners. So we’ve just been trying to raise awareness about that, but also turn people’s attention to very, very personal stories as much as we can.
Nima: So you mentioned the 2017 sanctions bill and, you know, I think that’s kind of an important thing for us to just talk about for just a sec in that so much of what we hear, especially now, especially when you know, people like Chris Murphy come out and talk about sanctions and how detrimental they are, those sanctions were supported by basically everyone who caucuses with the Democrats, let alone the Republicans of course, and so of the people who caucus with Democrats, the only one who voted no was Bernie Sanders, and I think part of this idea that this maximum pressure campaign, as we hear about from the Trump administration, which has, you know, ramped up sanctions recently, exacerbated this health crisis, but the fact is there have been sanctions on Iran for 40 years now. And this is not a Republican thing, it’s not a Democrat thing, it’s certainly not a solely Trump oriented thing and so can we kind of talk about how Democrats are just as responsible for this, and also, in terms of, you’ve been very personally impacted by those sanctions that were put in place in 2017. If you’re at all comfortable with it, would you mind telling us some of your personal story?
Keyvan Shafiei: Sure, let me just say, firstly, that sanctions on Iran, as you pointed out, didn’t start with the Trump administration. I mean, this form of international intimidation, which I think what it fundamentally is as a history that dates back decades with respect to Iran. The Bush administration used these sanctions or similar kinds of sanctions against Iran. The Obama administration did so as well. Sanctions have become basically a standard in the American foreign policy playbook and we have historical evidence for this. Consider, for instance, and this is not about Iran, but consider, for instance, the sanctions that the U.S. levied against Iraq in the 1990s, which were brutally enforced during the administration of Bill Clinton, killed nearly, as Lancet and other outlets have told us nearly 600,000 Iraqi children. So for years, the United States has relied on sanctions in the case of Iran, in the case of Iraq, in the case of Venezuela as a disciplinary tool against these supposedly errant states, which basically means states that are unwilling to kowtow to U.S. foreign policy demands for whatever reason. Now, in my own case, yes, I have been quite personal and vocal about what my family went through. So I am Iranian and I was born in Iran and I was raised in Iran until 2007. And I left Iran, basically with my brother around that time and our parents stayed behind. In 2016, my dad was diagnosed with what is basically an incurable neural disorder, a hereditary stroke disorder. And for over a year, we had been able to manage his treatment and keep him stable as much as we could. But in August 2017, and this is about a month and a half after the first round of U.S. sanctions on Iran during the Trump administration were introduced, my dad had a stroke in southeast Iran, which is where my family is from and was rushed to the hospital and immediately taken into intensive care. And while he was in ICU, he developed a pulmonary infection. Both of his lungs were basically filling up with liquid and because he was bed ridden for so long, the lungs were getting infected, and we needed medication to treat the pulmonary infections. So we could just stabilize this condition. And we looked everywhere for the drugs that we needed. The doctors told us we need the drugs, and they can only be secured from American and European distributors. We looked everywhere and we could not find those drugs. And there were variants of that drug from India and from Iran but my dad’s doctors were quite honest with us and told us that that just won’t do it because these drugs haven’t been as carefully tested and it’s unclear whether they would give us the effects that we needed. So we couldn’t find my dad his medication. This is life-saving medication that not just my father, but a lot of other people in the ICU where he was staying desperately needed. And after about two or three weeks my dad had another stroke and he went into surgery and he never recovered and he died in October 2017. So, yeah, those sanctions made it nearly impossible for my family to find and procure life saving medicine that my dad needed. And, of course, hindsight is 20/20 and I don’t want to speculate about whether his life would have been spared if we could have found the drugs and the medication that he needed but it is not impossible at all that things would have been different if my family, and also other families at the same hospital, had access to very, very basic goods to make sure that their loved ones are well taken care of.
Adam: I think this gets to the heart of the issue that we’re trying to convey, which is that the way sanctions are talked about in such a glib and kind of sanitized way, it’s just this haphazard thing you do when you want to punish some baddie country, is what makes them politically palatable. If you went to someone and said Iran in some meta, potential universe may or may not try to develop a nuke do you think that justifies killing 50,000 people or 100,000 people, whatever the number is which you can calculate or you can sort of do a kind of, you can’t do an AB test, obviously, but you can run different models and come up with numbers that are probably sensible?
Keyvan Shafiei: Right.
Adam: We’ve definitely seen that obviously in Venezuela as well. Most people would say, ‘No, that’s horrific, that’s just barbarism, it’s a sort of trolley problem.’ I mean, you’re a philosophy Ph.D. (Laughs.) You can tease this out here, but it’s like —
Nima: And even if you’re not, we’ve all seen The Good Place. I mean, come on.
Keyvan Shafiei: (Laughs.)
Adam: But there’s this sanitizing way we talk about it. It’s very anodyne, it’s very clean, it’s very neat and we spent the course of the top half of the show talking about that, how that’s sort of by design, right? Because people, you know, compartmentalization is one element of mass violence and fascism, I think also as well, of course, the sanitation of language. People don’t want to sort of think they’re doing evil. But I guess in your work, I assume that’s your biggest barrier, right? Your biggest barrier is to get your average kind of low-information liberal who supports sanctions because they’re a part of the Iran Deal, which they know is good, but don’t really understand why and have no sort of coherent reason why certain countries get nuclear weapons and others don’t. Can you sort of explain what that rhetorical barrier is to get people to really internalize what exactly is at stake?
Keyvan Shafiei: Right. Yeah, I think you are hitting on exactly the right point. It’s a rhetorical barrier, but it’s also an informational one. We don’t oftentimes hear about how sanctions are adversely affecting the lives of ordinary everyday people in these countries that presumably we consider our international enemies. What we talk about oftentimes are prospects of military escalation or military conflict, we talk about negotiations falling apart, and various administrations pursuing sanctions as a disciplinary tool but we don’t talk about the mass suffering and death that the use of sanctions inflict on everyday people. Their stories have for a long time, the stories of people from Iran, the stories of people from Iraq, the stories of people from Venezuela, are oftentimes marginalized in mainstream press. And because of that vacuum, this understanding has developed that, yeah, sanctions are a healthy alternative to military warfare. And if we want to take that claim seriously, then we have to assess the history of how successful the use of sanctions have been historically. So I think a recent study from, this is an original study from the 1980s, but it’s been reedited multiple times by Peterson Institute for International Economics, suggesting that sanctions only work about 30 or so percent of the time. That means that we rely on these punitive tools which oftentimes cause mass death and suffering for odds that are not even as reliable as a coin toss.
Adam: I feel like ‘Genocide works 30 percent of the time’ is a very —
Nima: (Laughs) Yeah.
Adam: Very Peterson Institute thing to say.
Keyvan Shafiei: (Laughs) Right. Right.
Adam: Okay, well, then let’s get that number up to 51 percent now, guys.
Keyvan Shafiei: Right. I mean, if they are saying this, you know, I think that means that a lot of people are becoming alive to the fact that, yeah, these are not reliable tools. These are not efficacious tools and, you know, I think there has been some shift in recent years, of course, in the cultural understanding of what these sanctions are doing, but we are still sort of fighting the informational war and yeah most people think that sanctions are the robust alternative to military warfare, but the numbers don’t support that empirically. And the stories of people who are hurting surely don’t support that either which means that these measures oftentimes are grossly missing their targets and instead, what happens is that innocent people hurt and suffer.
Adam: What I think people don’t quite realize is that hurting innocent people is the point, like I think, like Chris Murphy does this a lot where he’s, like, ‘And they incidentally hurt,’ it’s like, no, that’s the point, you dipshit. Do you think Mike Pompeo and all the frickin’ neoconservative psychos in the Trump administration give two shits about the Iranian people? They don’t fucking care. These same people on a daily basis lobby for the mass punishment of Palestinians, you think they give two fucks if thousands of Iranians die? So like, I don’t know, there’s a sort of like, credulous posture that liberals are forced to take where they’re like, ‘Oh, they harm the people.’ It’s like, no shit, that’s what they’re designed to do. The one person who I’ve been very impressed with, the one elected, who I think has really kind of tried to change that mentality is Ilhan Omar who has challenged sanctions in Venezuela in explicit terms. I mean, I think she sometimes falls into the trap of saying, ‘Don’t get me wrong, these regimes are evil, and they all need to die anyway,’ that liberal throat-clearing tic, where you have to sort of say the premise of your genocidal regime is good, or is correct, but it’s not effective.
There's no denying Iran is a bad actor, but innocent civilians are dying there in part because our sanctions are limiting humanitarian aid during coronavirus. We need to ease them to ensure that aid gets through. https://t.co/ECipoSMTcM
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) April 6, 2020
Nima: In process that it falls flat.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. But generally, I think she’s changed the way we view it.
Keyvan Shafiei: I think Ilhan Omar for sure. I think Bernie Sanders has obviously demonstrated an occasional willingness to break with the orthodoxy on sanctions, and let’s bear in mind that this is a country that is extremely isolated in a very volatile region. It is surrounded by American allies, by American military bases, by Saudi Arabia, by UAE, by Pakistan, by Israel. The Iranian government feels very unsafe in the region and not for the wrong reasons.
Nima: (Laughs.) Because the U.S. has been trying to overthrow it for four decades.
Keyvan Shafiei: That’s right. And not too long ago, there were two wars fully going on and they’re still going on in a lot of ways, just across the border. I mean, I live in southeast Iran, which is a province away from the border of Iran, Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan and it wasn’t too long ago, when, you know, if you went to the border, you could probably see American troops on the ground. So, you know, of course, I don’t want to say that Iran hasn’t done bad things, of course they have, they are a regional actor and they have a vested interest in doing things that upset Americans and their allies, but let’s put this in context and remember that for 40 years the United States has been trying to undermine the government of Iran in various ways, and that Iran geographically, geopolitically is surrounded by American allies, many of whom would be very happy if the government of Iran tomorrow was wiped out. So some of the insecurities of the regime make sense if you put them in context. But that said, why are we even talking about that? I mean, why are we talking about whether they are a good or a bad actor? I mean, I’m sure if we went through the history of the things that the United States has done internationally, and wanted to make the judgment on the basis thereof, of whether we should sanction US, we would have very good reasons for thinking that yes, we should. But that’s not the point. The point is that these sanctions are hurting ordinary average Iranians. And if we want to prevent that kind of suffering, and if we also want to prevent a hardening of opposition at the popular level toward the United States, then we should emphasize multilateralism, we should emphasize dialogue instead of punitiveness and instead of militarism.
Nima: That’s actually a great place to leave it. Keyvan Shafiei, Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department at Georgetown University. Keyvan, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Keyvan Shafiei: Of course, thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, so you know when you hear the personal stories, it sort of de-abstracts it. This is, of course, one of the hardest things that you and I do, we try to emphasize that the things we’re talking about are not theoretical, they cause real harm. In establishing the stakes and of course there’s no stakes higher than losing people you love.
Nima: When we hear that a country is going to be choked, starved, suffocated, strangled there are people on the other side of that rhetoric. And so we hear so often that it’s, you know, either targeted at the regime or it’s targeted at the economy to squeeze concessions, to change behavior, that has real implications, life and death implications on the human beings that live in these countries, that did not call for this, that do not want this, that are not fooled by who’s to blame for this.
Adam: Yeah. And that’s why the End COVID Sanctions campaign which has teamed up with pretty normie groups, you know, Move On, Win Without War, these are pretty normie groups, because the utter human suffering is just so obvious, not even moderate, mainstream Democrats can ignore it anymore. And so I think there’s for once in a long time, there’s a little bit of traction on actually maybe, if not overturning the sanctions, or at least getting the concept that sanctions aren’t this anodyne, clean, neat, little diplomacy tool, right, but actually are a form of violence, they’re a tremendous form of violence. That that mind shift can begin to take place.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by our second guest, writer and educator Hoda Katebi, a community organizer and abolitionist working with the No War Campaign and Believers Bail Out. Hoda is going to join us in just a moment. Thanks for staying with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Hoda Katebi. Hoda, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed. It’s great to have you back.
Hoda Katebi: Of course. Thanks so much for having me.
Adam: So we spent the first half hour talking about sanctions, the sort of origins of the concepts and the kind of ways in which they’re framed in the media. I want to talk about, ‘cause we’ve discussed the COVID sanction campaign, one of the things I want to talk about is this rhetorical kind of moral barrier to get the average person, let’s even say the average sort of do goody liberal, to really understand what sanctions are and what they do, and in your work, what approaches have you’ve taken to shake this deeply pernicious and I think casually racist concept that sanctions are anodyne? How do you combat that? If you meet your sort of average Democratic voter, as it were, like, what do you say to them? How do you get them to care?
Hoda Katebi: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s very difficult just because there’s already just so many layers and misunderstandings about sanctions in and of themselves, but then also, sanctions feels so theoretical, so intangible we don’t have all like local sanctions offices, you know, that we can like go and protest at but it literally just happens from the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Department of Treasury, which no one wants to fuck with, you know, because no one wants to have their taxes audited. So it’s just a lot of like, layers and layers and doors and doors, and it’s difficult to be able to even bring back to the United States, and have people sort of resonate with that just because it’s even difficult to get, you know, when we’re thinking about war, everyone’s like, okay, well, it It’s easy, you know, you don’t want your money to go toward war, you want your tax money to go toward the healthcare industry or education but when it comes to sanctions, the only thing that your tax dollars really have any relationship with is paying Steve Mnuchin, who is Secretary of Treasury, who administers sanctions. So it’s difficult just because of how opaque, it just feels so intangible. What’s really important is to be able to bring the effects of sanctions home and really sort of uplift those stories and uplift the everyday experiences of everyday Iranians who have to deal with sanctions in their everyday. So even things like iOS, like apps on the iOS devices, Netflix, even basic things that we take for granted don’t work, let alone banking systems, people’s assets abroad, people’s sort of ability to communicate freely via social media accounts. I use Gmail, I have a G Suite account, when I was in Iran last March I couldn’t even use my own email without using a VPN and so just the layers though of how sanctions affect people in Iran are so deep and literally affect every single day. And so I think that it’s easy to bring those stories here and make people really realize how sanctions are affecting people. But also, of course, there’s just so much misinformation. So for example, Pompeo, Steve Mnuchin, all of these far right people, even Democrats say that things like humanitarian aid aren’t sanctioned, or things like medical supplies aren’t sanctioned and for some reason everybody understands that Trump is a liar, and everything that comes out of his mouth is to be questioned but when it comes to foreign policy, somehow, people kind of see that Trump is a valid voice of reason. We saw that even in January, when the United States was about to start an entire war with Iran over misinformation that they were giving the public and so we see this time after time, again, that it seems like just because things are so far away, it seems like it’s another world, that there’s just such a little frame of reference for people to even understand and kind of opt to taking the word of the government when they don’t otherwise feel that way with anything else.
Nima: So right now with the continually unfolding coronavirus crisis around the world but really felt acutely in Iran, can you talk to us a little bit about what you’re hearing about what’s going on there? And I believe your aunt is a doctor in Iran, what are you hearing from her and how these sanctions are affecting people’s lives?
Hoda Katebi: It’s horrific. You can’t even sugarcoat it. It’s absolutely terrifying and horrifying. And obviously, the Iranian government plays a major role in sort of downplaying the situation and not dealing with it properly, but we also see U.S. sanctions playing such a major role in sort of the massive spread and outbreak and turning Iran into one of the epicenters of the virus now. So my aunt, my khaleh, she tells me a lot about just a major lack of personal protective equipment or PPE, at hospitals, there’s not enough facemasks, she literally, my other aunt was tattletale-ing on her and called me to tell me that she keeps giving away her PPE to other doctors because she’s just like, something in Farsi called taarof, like, you just offer it, you keep handing it to other people.
Nima: (Laughs.) ‘No, you take it. You live, I’ll die. You live.’
Hoda Katebi: Yeah, it takes the saying, ghorboonet beram, ‘I’ll sacrifice myself for you,’ which is a very casual saying, very literally. But it’s also just absolutely terrifying. Like, anytime I get a call from family in Iran, I’m holding my breath or anytime I’m calling just waiting and hearing the dial tone, my blood pressure is high, I’m just so anxious and nervous that I’m about to receive bad news on the other line, just because it’s what’s so uncontrollable right now. And I think a major part of that is very much related to the fact that medical supplies are not able to be purchased and countries are being prosecuted and have been prosecuted in the past for selling medical supplies to Iran. So we see massive shortages even before the outbreak of coronavirus, people were dying from preventable illnesses in hospitals just because of a lack of access to affordable medicine.
Adam: Yeah, it seems like this is true both with sanctions in Iran and outside of Iran, but also pretty much everything which is that the coronavirus crisis, such that it is, amplifies existing injustice in such an extreme way that we now see it. Whereas like there’s sort of like normal accepted loss that’s factored into the ledger at the beginning of the year. 40,000–50,000 dead Iranians, you know, 60,000 dead Venezuelans, 10,000–20,000 Americans die from being underinsured and then when everything gets rushed into this crisis mode, then suddenly everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this is awful.’ Well, yeah, it was awful before, but now it’s extremely awful, because now it’s 100,000 or 200,000. And I guess to what extent you feel like this opportunity, for lack of a better term, and I want to use opportunity in a positive sense, but this crisis gives a way to convey what activists have been saying for years now. One of the weirdest dynamics when you talk about sanctions is that people will use violent language to talk about it, you know, “tightening the noose,” I believe Nima, what did Hillary Clinton say? She said something to the effect of, like —
Nima: Well it’s always, you know, “strangling sanctions,” “we’re going to tighten the noose.”
Adam: “Strangling sanctions,” “crippling sanctions,” the sort of infamous “make their economy scream.” And then when you tell people, ‘Oh, well, they’re like acts of mass violence.’ They act all precious about it, like, ‘Oh, well actually’ and it’s, like, no, like that’s the terms they use. To what extent do you think that this needs to be, again, you see this with single payer advocates advocating for single payer because people are not getting tested or going to the doctor or dying or going broke because of a lack of health care, to what extent do you think this coronavirus crisis needs to be seen as, as a way of amplifying previously existing in justices?
Hoda Katebi: Oh, 100 percent. Like you mentioned, I think what this virus has really shown for people is that the United States and the systems, the ways that this country is set up, the priorities in terms of budget, bailing out Wall Street instead of people, I think it just really illuminates that this country and the structures in which we live in are not made to care for people. And if they were then we wouldn’t be in the situation, like if the institutions that we find ourselves in were actually created to create places of care, then we would not be having a crisis where everyone is sort of like struggling to pay rent or the whole country is falling apart and I think it’s incredibly telling of the larger, deeper issues that are at play. So I think specifically when it comes to sanctions, we definitely see that. And I think right now, more than anything, the virus has taught us that like on a global scale, that our lives and our health are deeply connected and interdependent on each other, from prisons and people who are incarcerated currently in the United States, to people in Iran, and it feels like, yes, they’re just like, they’re over there, they’re abroad. But we’ve seen that what is over there and abroad will come back here to the United States very quickly, if the United States also doesn’t do its part in flattening a global curve. And I think it’s unfair even for politicians to be asking everybody to do their part to flatten the curve in each state or city when on a global scale America is doing quite the opposite, and actually working to exponentially rise cases of coronavirus in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Iran. And I think that it’s also deeply connected and we have to realize that if Iran isn’t able to contain the virus, or Venezuela isn’t able to contain the virus, then that’s going to come back to the United States and we’re going to see this again and again and again. And so it’s even in the most racist American’s best interest to be able to make sure that Iranian doctors have a fighting chance to fight coronavirus, because it’s going to come back here. We have all a vested interest in making sure that everybody is free from immigration detention centers and jails, because it’s going to spread and we don’t want to have mass atrocities on our hand and overwhelm the healthcare system in a way that already sort of, we’re seeing it slowly collapsing, which is terrifying. But that also impedes our ability to get care as well. And so I think that this is a powerful moment to be able to really show what intersectionality means on a scale that I don’t think that people have really been able to see before.
Nima: Yeah, I think that, you know, what you’re speaking to makes me think about how our society treats captive populations and whether it’s holding countries hostage because of the political situation and feeling humiliated for 40 years, if not 60 years, and you know, maintaining blockades and sieges and sanctions out of kind of foreign policy spite, and holding entire populations under these threats all the way to, as you mentioned, mass incarceration where people are captive. And so I think with all of us who are being told to shelter in place, feeling like we have a loss of a certain kind of liberty, it’s like the tiniest little inclination, right? Like the smallest example, oh, is this what it means to not be able to move freely? How do we broaden that concept of humanity to see what is so frustrating to us, but necessary for safety needs to be afforded to other people? And so I guess my question to you is, what do you see happening in terms of activism on the side and whether it’s the End COVID Sanctions campaign that you’re involved in, or other moves to end mass incarceration in this time, what do you see moving on those fronts?
Hoda Katebi: (Laughs.) Yeah, I think that it’s really exciting honestly and I say that knowing that the situation is just really shitty, but at the same time, I think that we really are in a moment that we’ve never seen before, not just in our lifetimes, but through centuries, and that the world truly is experiencing the same thing almost at the same time. And it’s really, really mind blowing, because also, as we mentioned, all of these deep injustices of the world that we’re finding ourselves in are also just coming to light in the most vicious of ways. The fact the United States has a limited number in its storage of N-95 masks, that they’re prioritizing to give to ICE agents, rather than doctors and nurses, is easy to enrage anybody, even if they were pro-ICE before. So I think that this is really, really an opportune moment and I think that people are also taking grasp of that. I think that this is a really beautiful moment that right now in our End COVID Sanctions campaign, we’re talking about how we can also build with people in Gaza who are also dealing with United States embargo and blockade, who are also under occupation, people in Kashmir and Gaza talking about what it feels like to have COVID and be under occupation, and Venezuela and Cuba, I think that there is so much opportunity for not just connecting our movements domestically, but globally, and being able to really raise the bar in what we’re asking for. Iran, for example, released nearly half of its inmate population, and that’s huge, and I think that if the United States was to replicate that and in Iran, we should be pushing to release even more prisoners, particularly political prisoners — though all prisoners are political prisoners — I think that it’s incredibly important that we really sort of push our most like radical ideas, and start actually imagining and building the world that we need. And I think that it’s clear that this system has failed, as everyone is always talking, you know, you say the word “communism,” you say the word “socialism,” they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s failed. You know, it doesn’t work.’ Look around. Capitalism is utterly failing, and it has been. So I think it’s very clear that we can point to capitalism time after time again, this is not a system that’s working, it has never worked and more so than now, capitalism will not care for people in the way that it needs to, for us to not have millions of deaths on our hands in the United States and globally. We’re also seeing COVID bringing our health care really related on a global scale, understanding that our health is connected, I think we’re also seeing that it’s the same institutions that are also behind everything. We’re seeing the same sort of corporations playing the same sort of games still getting bailed out, repetition of the ways in which the United States has sort of shifted to deal with crisis in the past but on a scale that it will not be sustainable and is not feasible. So if massive structural changes are not implemented, people are going to be dying in mass in the United States, not from coronavirus, but from starvation, from not having a home, from being out in the street and not having the funds to be able to even buy groceries or pay rent. So I think that it’s not important to be doing community organizing or shifting things right now but it’s absolutely integral for literally the livelihood of millions of people domestically and abroad.
Adam: One of the rejoinders to that and I got it a bunch is that people say, ‘Oh, well, you’re trying to exploit the COVID crisis to push socialism.’ And I’m always like, well, yeah, because obviously the virus itself is not capitalist per se, right? I mean, it’s a virus, it’s apolitical, but certainly many of the ways in which the crisis is made 10 times, 100 times worse, like from sanctions, from obviously not having a social safety net precarity of labor, all that stuff is extremely manmade and extremely solvable. So when you hear people say that because this is now, this is all Ben Shapiro talks about, you know, ‘The socialists are using…’ blah, blah, blah. What do you say to that? What do you say when people say you’re using this to sort of push your far-left ideology?
Hoda Katebi: I think that’s absolutely ridiculous and laughable, if it wasn’t just so infuriating. I think that we see that what’s happening is that it actually is a classist virus in many cases. It’s wealthy people who have had the privilege of being able to travel have now spread this virus far and wide, not people who have been banned from this country and couldn’t even enter, but it’s people who have the privilege of being able to enter this country freely, and have the privilege of being able to be on these expensive and boozy cruises, the privilege of just traveling globally and then being able to get tested. Why is it that all of these celebrities who are asymptomatic and even themselves are saying they’re asymptomatic are getting tested for coronavirus, whereas people who are literally coughing or have all of the symptoms are being turned away at hospitals because there aren’t enough tests. It’s not affecting everybody equally. And what is important is that if we don’t use this moment to actually create a world that helps everybody, then we’re all going to die. It’s not about using a moment to push a political agenda, it’s about using a moment to realize that the system is corrupt, everything’s falling apart and if things don’t actually change, people are going to die in mass and I think that that’s the most important thing is that this is literally people’s care, people’s safety and their livelihood and it’s absolutely integral that now more than ever, people are realizing that. I think that there is a relationship in the ways in which everything is linked together is also so clear whereas before, we just had to tell people, and they just have to believe us, or we would try to make these clear, and people would be like, ‘Yeah, but I only want to focus on this niche issue.’ But now you can’t, because not just because we’re going to yell and be angry, but because people will die if we don’t make those links. People will die if we don’t actually work together to push against the ability of the far right to actually make moves at this moment. If anything, we see in Naomi Klein’s Disaster Capitalism, actually, the far right always uses opportunities like this to push sweeping and incredibly destructive economic policies. We saw that after Katrina and we see that after any major crisis in the United States that these far right policies that Congresspeople have just been literally holding on and keeping between the pages of their Bible, that they have never read, just waiting for the right moment to pass all that draconian laws and we’re seeing this time after time again, why is it that there’s so much mobilization of U.S. troops in Iraq right now? And I think that that’s something that people aren’t talking about. Why is it that the United States is still engaged in warfare abroad? And this is not something that we’re talking about. It’s because people are focused on corona. So how about all of the far right, who is able to push all of these really draconian laws that are going to be stripping us of our human rights, stripping us of our ability to organize and I think that’s actually terrifying. If anything, right now I feel like what is really crucial about this moment is that it feels like we’re delicately balanced and either will go farther along a road of far right fascism, or actually, we can create and start imagining that world that works for everybody. And I think that it’s wild and just scary that it just feels so delicately balanced and I don’t think anyone really knows politically or economically what’s going to come next. But it’s up to all of us right now to really focus on making that happen. I think for those of us who have the ability to, because obviously I know that it’s also people’s mental health right now is sort of in crisis, people are struggling a lot, people have lost a lot of jobs, but I don’t think this is the time to write that novel. I don’t think this is the time to learn how to paint. I think this is the time more than anything to actually understand how your neighbors are doing, how your community is doing, and really start to build avenues and access and the opportunity to really push a larger movement that allows you to have safety so you don’t have to worry so much about your mental health, you don’t have to worry so much about your neighbor contracting corona. And I think all of that needs to happen right now. But if we all do this together, then it also won’t put so much pressure on the few organizers that are actually moving things.
Nima: Yeah, I think, you know, something you’ve been talking about is the idea that in crisis, inequity is just exacerbated, right? And is put into much starker focus and to kind of bring it back a little to sanctions and the effect of sanctions on populations, I think so much of what we hear is it’s only on the leaders of the country, right? It’s not on the people. And obviously that’s not true. Obviously, the most negative impacted populations are not those in power, not the ruling classes and so what we’re told about sanctions, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s Venezuela, whether it’s Cuba and elsewhere, is that these are aimed at the government, it’s not aimed at the people and I think what we’re seeing, obviously, we know that that is fundamentally and historically untrue, but in terms of now, the current crisis of COVID-19, we’re also seeing that play out in a very similar way where yeah, it’s not this, ‘Look, you know, we’re all equally affected, we’re all in this together,’ it’s, again, who is so much more negatively affected. Who can get tests, who can’t. Who can shelter in place safely, who can’t. And so I think we’re just seeing this play out in these parallel tracks where we’re still supposed to believe that these actions that are taken against nations or these actions that are taken against spreading a virus are in the best interests of everyone and it’s clear whose interests are really served.
Hoda Katebi: 100 percent.
Adam: Before you go, I want to ask, because I think people right now are kind of hungry for, like you said, I think, there was a New York Times column that sort of went viral today about how it’s okay not to work. The people they interviewed were, I think, an arts director and an academic project manager at Amazon, sort of very focused on a very specific set of bourgeois kind of, yeah, everyone that was sharing it would be like, ‘Thank you,’ and something rubbed me about it the wrong way. The first being that there was some gesturing towards the evils of capitalism forcing us to work, but it’s like, these people are not the victims of capitalism.
Hoda Katebi: They are the evils of capitalism.
Adam: Yeah, especially, especially a project manager at Amazon, which is pretty much —
Hoda Katebi: Are they letting their Amazon workers not work?
Adam: Yeah, yeah. Anyway, besides that, the thing that rubbed me the wrong way is, and you touched on this, and I want to ask you about this, where you say, look, if you have some bullshit job, don’t stress too much about pleasing your boss right now. I think that’s probably good advice for everyone, right? But if you have the ability, the privilege, and the resources, like you said, you should be working, you shouldn’t be working on that great American novel. Like, there’s a ton of work to do. So I guess this is a really long winded way of saying, for those who do have time and the resources to work, what resources would you recommend, we can obviously link to them, what are you seeing out there that is worth people who have that anger and want to direct that towards something constructive? Where would you point them towards?
Hoda Katebi: Oh, a million directions.
Hoda Katebi: I think that there’s always something that somebody can do, always, and I don’t want to say that to overwhelm people or make them feel guilty because that’s actually something that I struggle with, is a feeling of guilt. I’ll work like 15 hours a day and then be, like, can I watch Netflix for one hour?
Hoda Katebi: And so I don’t at all want anybody to feel guilty about a lack of ability to do work. Everyone has bad days, everyone has bad weeks, we’re literally dealing with a fucking global pandemic. So I think before we even talk about where to start organizing or plug in, I think it’s also really important to make sure that we have our own support system of people, friends, neighbors, family that we check in on and they’re going to check in on us because that also, if I did not have people who literally send me stupid memes throughout the day that I can just laugh with then it’s so much more difficult to have that energy or even have the mental strength to be able to keep fighting and focusing, even if you’ve lost your entire income like I have. So I think what is really important is being able to just start even locally and start building with your neighbors, figuring out who in your building can’t afford rent next month, who in your building needs groceries, who is immunocompromised, and I think that those small steps are actually really, really helpful because for people who maybe don’t have as much organizing experience, that’s a really easy way to just start building. Building community, building relationships, meeting who you are neighbors with, and being able to start building slow support systems or even mutual aid. And I think from there, it’s so easy to be able to build power that way. It’s harder to just feel like you’re all alone behind a computer in your studio by yourself, when you know that you’re at least in a building of people who are going to look out for each other. And I think that that’s a really important place to start and then beyond that, I think is figuring out where are there calls to action? Are there things that you can call, there’s so much that’s happening I think just scroll through Twitter and there’s like a million places that you can call, there’s a million things that you can get plugged into, but definitely just trying to see what’s happening locally, and then trying to figure out how you can connect that and uplift other demands in the work that we’re doing. So even, for example, our End COVID Sanctions campaign, I think that it may not feel super intuitive to tie sanctions into decarcerating the United States but I think it makes so much sense. Flattening a curve is flattening a curve. Taking care of people is taking care of people. Like you mentioned, it’s two different types of people who are sort of trapped and confined in many ways. So what does it mean to actually be able to incorporate the demands of other campaigns, other projects that you’re seeing and really engage with, into creating a more broad based, more intersectional approach to the work that you’re doing. And I think that that’s an important way to also be able to start to grow and build with people who you may not even be used to being in spaces with, because now digitally, it doesn’t matter where you live, you’re connected just as much as everybody else is, so I think being able to just like find things that are maybe ongoing campaigns that you can plug into, even if it’s just making a few phone calls a day, organizing or supporting larger mutual aid projects locally, and trying to meet the needs of community members and neighbors, but then also trying to think about how to globalize and really think about whose needs on a local or global scale are being unmet, and then how either a campaign can get started, how things can get mobilized, how to get your friends really active and involved. I’ve seen so many really creative ways that are so inspiring and exciting ways that people have really been able to protest and have mass action moments like COVID. So I mean, for example, we’re seeing a lot of organizers, I believe in the Bay, had a mass like drive-through outside city hall to get them to close down or free people from jails and immigration detention centers. They were so loud, and they made so much noise outside of a town hall meeting that they had to actually postpone the vote, just by blasting music from their cars. So I think that there’s so much space for creativity and I think that it’s exciting to be able to reinvent organizing in a time that we’ve seen unparalleled restrictions and also thinking about how we can be as proactive as possible if things actually get more and more fascist, get more and more militant, how can we make sure that we’re using encrypted versions of Zoom, which is like Jitsi Meet? How can we think about ways that we can also protect ourselves online and not just allow everything that we’re doing to now, like Google or Facebook, and all of these like big data-mining companies have access to everything that we’re doing? So I think there’s also digital protection and digital organizing that is really powerful, too.
Adam: I think that’s very useful because I’ve been surprised by how many comments we’ve received where people are just sort of really, really angry, and they kind of don’t even know where to turn, which is probably why they’re even asking a podcaster they’ll say, like, you know, ‘What can I do? What is the sort of call to action?’ Because I —
Nima: Help me, Adam Johnson, you’re our only hope.
Adam: I mean, whatever, it’s true, I don’t know, it’s stupid but what do you want from me? And I guess that was a very good answer, it’s a very useful answer and I know it’s something that even I’ve struggled to answer myself because it’s not always clear, right? There’s a ton of different—do you call this politician? Do you mutual aid? There’s all these kinds of, you know, you only have so many hours in the day and so I appreciate that.
Hoda Katebi: But also if it doesn’t exist, just make it happen, you know, if there’s something that you feel very strongly about that’s not happening, you don’t have to wait for somebody to give you direction. Just organize it, figure it out, you have all day literally.
Adam: Yeah, and then you’re putting out all these fires, you know, which cause is more important, so it’s hard, it’s hard for people. I don’t actually have a huge point there. I’m just handwringing.
Hoda Katebi: I mean, it’s also all interlinked, which is why, for example, I do a lot of work around garment worker organizing, and like supporting garment workers and fast fashion sweatshops in Indonesia, for example, and people are always like, What can I do?, but if you really understand how the fast fashion industry works, and how global inequality works, if we protest, just like capitalism here, if you protest, U.S. militarism here, then that actually affects garment workers’ livelihoods abroad. And so I think instead of being overwhelmed with everything that you can get involved with, just know that if you’re actually working on any issue in a deeply intersectional and deep way that you are affecting everything at the same time as well.
Nima: Well, I think that is a wonderfully optimistic and off-brand way to end this interview. We usually don’t do that on Citations Needed, so thank you. But no, it has been great, we’ve been speaking with Hoda Katebi, organizer, abolitionist, writer, educator. Hoda, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Hoda Katebi: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think the question of how do you handle the crisis? How do you build solidarity when there’s such tremendous forces working against us? It is a tough one. Like you said, people will sometimes ask us and we ask other people. I don’t know the answer, you know, I don’t like to hand wring as a rule, but there’s questions that are outside of our pay grade. But they’re questions that logically follow media criticism, which is, you know, here’s all these horrible things, you note, what do I do about it? And more and more and more, we sort of tried to say, ‘Okay, well, actually, here’s the thing you can do,’ I think, the End COVID Sanctions is a good place to start. Again, it’s not the most, I mean, you know, in many ways the demands of the End COVID Sanctions campaign are more modest than the demands from the Warren, Sanders, AOC bill, because they’re calling for a lesser timeframe of sanctions relief and I think that that’s a good place to start. It’s a good entry point to start. It’s like ending the war in Yemen, which still hasn’t happened, you know, where you kind of make traction, you get close and then it just keeps you crushing you but you have to keep at it because, I don’t know, you have to keep at it because eventually, you know, you can sort of break through with these things and I think that it’s great to see people who are working on this feeling like they’re getting some kind of momentum for something that’s taken so long to get momentum on.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, of course, the pandemic has obviously exacerbated inequities that have already existed that are systemic, that are inherent to our systems to the way that we operate as a superpower, if it’s the United States, as a kind of global economic regime that we preside over and, you know, kind of fuck with at our will to punish and intimidate. And we’re seeing this from the very localized, you know, who is most affected, who is dying, who is doing the dying more than most during this pandemic, and it shines a light on the real human cost of our systems. And part of those systems are sanctions on foreign countries. You know, I mean, we could look at sometimes sanctions on our own neighborhoods, depending on where those neighborhoods are that are disinvested from deliberately but when we look outwardly to a tool of foreign policy, we see sanctions doing those same things, and really, really hurting people, devastating families and we are seeing hopefully some kind of pushback against that. Where that will go, of course, we don’t know though we can probably guess.
Adam: Yeah, when you hear the word sanctions, all I would say is a good thing to ask is, is that, and it’s hard to find, because polling firms deliberately don’t ask those questions, but occasionally somebody will ask the question, go look at polling in these countries, and see what percent of people support it and you will find that unless it’s an oppressed ethnic minority like Palestinians or black people in South Africa, they never support it because why would they? It doesn’t make sense.
Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. We cannot thank everyone enough for continuing to listen to the show, for continuing to support the show. Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, if you are able, at this time to become a supporter of our work, please do, it is so appreciated, you can do that through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson and of course, an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thank you, everyone, as always, for listening this week. We will catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.