Without Ending Deadly Sanctions on Iran, There Can Be No “Woman, Life, Freedom”

Massive ongoing protests have been sparked by the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22 year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in hospital on September 16th, three days after she was arrested by the Iranian Guidance Patrol. Outraged by the Iranian state’s brutal treatment of women for not observing “proper hijab,” Iranian women in different cities and rural areas have been at the forefront of the street protests, removing their hijabs, and some cutting off their hair publicly as a sign of mourning while resisting police crackdown. A month later, it was estimated that there were at least 200,000 Iranian women who had not adhered to the “proper hijab” standard. 233 people, 23 of whom were children, were killed in the protests.

Protests in Iran erupted because of long-standing grievances stemming from the unfulfilled promises of the post-revolutionary Iranian government, whose anti-imperialist Islamic nationalism aimed to eliminate economic injustices, inequalities, and the political oppression under the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Regime. These promises have not been fulfilled more than 40 years later. The ever-increasing gap in wealth and economic status between most of the population as well as the economic elites, the unequal distribution and impoverishment (and the impoverishment and displacement of ethnic minorities like Kurds and Arabs) and the suppression or dissent have been a problem for decades. Sanctions against Iran, which have the effect of disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable sections of the Iranian population, add to Iran’s domestic economic policies.

A History of Sanctions

Although the U.S. has repeatedly imposed sanctions against Iran since 1979’s revolution, the Obama administration imposed some of the most severe sanctions in American economic warfare history on Iran. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), was signed into law by President Obama on July 1. This amended the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996. The CISADA introduced new restrictions that have devastated the Iranian economy. The new sanctions imposed excruciating economic pressure on the Iranian population — especially the working class — and jeopardized many lives by making life-saving medicine unaffordable. The imposition of CISADA and economic pressure by the U.S. and Europe led Iran to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal) in 2015 — a deal which lifted some of the sanctions (though not all of them). The Trump administration’s reversal of the JCPOA, followed by the imposition of a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions, continues under the Biden presidency. Although the Iran-U.S. talks have resumed this year in Iran, Israel, the U.S.hawks and some regime-change opponents forces within the Iranian diaspora have been significant obstacles to the relief of sanctions and continue their opposition to the reinstatement of the JCPOA by appropriating the Iranian protests.

The short-lived relief that the JCPOA afforded the Iranian people notwithstanding, the longstanding sanctions — exacerbated by Trump’s renewed measures — have deeply affected the quality of life in Iran. The Iranian state’s hasty decision to implement “independent development” in an effort to bolster the economy has culminated in home-grown technologies that have had devastating environmental consequences. Iran began to refine its own petrol after Obama imposed sanctions for selling petrol to Iran. This resulted a 75 percent drop in imports. This policy led to the production of diesel and petrol. contained 10-800 times more contaminants than the international standard. The subsequent air pollution has increased levels of cancer (especially breast cancer) in Iran, which — exacerbated by the lack of access to life-saving cancer treatments, also due to U.S. sanctions — has subjected the Iranian population to slow death.

The renewed U.S. sanctions under Trump’s administration further decreased Iranians’ purchasing power and increased inflation at unprecedented rates. Even as the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued guidance that humanitarian items (such as medicine) would not face U.S. sanctions, the sanctions on Iranian oil and Iran’s Central Bank significantly minimized the nation’s ability to afford medicine and medical supplies — a reality that resulted in a devastatingly high rate of deaths during the coronavirus pandemic. Even though medicine is exempted from the sanctions on paper due to the sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, suppliers are prohibited from selling life-saving medicine and medical supplies to Iran. Financial transactions are also subject to sanctions or capped at levels that render exemptions meaningless. As Human Rights Watch reported in April 2020, “the definition of drugs under US export regulations — which includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and medical devices — excludes certain vaccines, biological and chemical products, and medical devices — including medical supplies, instruments, equipment, equipped ambulances, institutional washing machines for sterilization, and vehicles carrying medical testing equipment. This means that some of the equipment crucial to fighting the virus, such as decontamination equipment, and full-mask respirators, require a special license.” Although some international aid was allowed due to the pandemic, even humanitarian organizations that have OFAC licenses to operate within Iran struggled with legal battles that withheld their license renewal, which meant a significant delay in the first weeks of the pandemic when relief efforts were crucial.

An increase in privatization, which is against the ideals of early revolution years, has combined with sanctions to worsen economic inequalities, leading to growing discontentment. In the last few years, massive protests have resulted from widespread anger at corruption, unemployment, and the austerity measures taken by the state to correct the economic crisis that has been triggered by sanctions. Protests were held in Tehran, Khorramshahr and Ahwaz in response to the drastic fall in Iranian currency value and the inability to access clean water in Khuzestan’s southern province in July 2018. In recent months, teachers and government workers protested low wages and privatization of education. These protests have consistently been brutally suppressed by the Iranian state in the name of “national security.”

Sanctions, as many have argued are war by another name. Over four decades of economic sanctions have made life extremely difficult for the majority of the Iranian population without making any difference in the Iranian state’s repressive policies. In fact, sanctions — along with covert U.S. operations under the guise of “democratization projects” and the pending threat of U.S. military intervention — have actually furthered the securitization of the Iranian state and have given it a convenient excuse to silence any kind of dissent. Any protest — whether it is a response to the rise in gas prices, economic corruption and sanctions profiteering (opportunistic financial transactions and trade by private entities and corrupt government elements to profit from the misfortune of the majority of the population), constriction of social freedoms, catastrophic environmental policies, oppression of ethnic minorities, or labor injustice — is accused of “foreign collusion” and is suppressed brutally.

Despite Repression, Protests Keep Going

The opportunistic theft of the Iranian protests by some Iranian diasporic opposition groupsAlso, U.S. war hawksThe Israeli state, continues to encourage the Iranian state’s crackdown on social media and jeopardize the safety of Iranian people who bravely risk their lives in street protests.The appropriation and hijacking of Iranian protests by regime change enthusiastsThey are not new. These threats are not new. The Iranian state responds with a strategy that is all too familiar to the Iranian people: torture, arrest and detention. force confessionsFrom the dissidents whom the state accuses of “foreign collusion” and propaganda, cut off internet accessDuring the protests, for Iranian citizens

Domestically, post-revolutionary Iran’s anti-imperialist ideals have lost their appeal to some segments of the Iranian population who blame the economic atrocities and rampant inflation on Iran’s geopolitical role in the regionIts support for political groups in Palestine and Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Yemen, and Lebanon is a major concern. This resentment is based on the idea that the state is supporting political groups in the region while ignoring Iranians, and the claim that this support has made Iran isolated from the “West.” As such, the dire economic conditions have pitted Iranian people’s struggle against the struggles of Iran’s Arab and Afghan neighbors.

“Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” which is adopted from the Kurdish slogan “Jin Jian Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”), has become a rallying cry of the recent protests — encapsulating politics and life by insisting on “freedom” beyond nationalism. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi doesn’t pit the struggles of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, the U.S., Syria, Lebanon, and other parts of the world against each other, nor does it dismiss those struggles because the Iranian state appropriates them for its own geopolitical agendas. It rejects Islamophobia as well as orientalist representations about Muslim women. It also refuses to reduce the movement to abolish compulsory hijab into a binary between religion and secularism. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi does not translate into liberal democracy’s promise of freedom — a freedom that has historically been entangled with private property, racialized and gendered notions of humans, and built upon death, debilitation, enslavement and dispossession. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi, or “Woman, Life, Freedom,” crystallizes a politics where “woman” is not an overdetermined biological identity, a symbol of national honor, or a body without subjectivity on which battles over liberation take place. “Woman, Life, Freedom” calls for a future where sanctions do not deplete life and where repression is not justified in the name of national security. Women who suffer economic devastation and increased violence are the most vulnerable. The call for “Woman, Life, Freedom” is not achievable unless there is an end to the deadly sanctions and sanctions profiteering.

The massive protests in Iran signal that many Iranians — even some who are aligned with or support the state — are fed up with the corruption and repression which are ironically enforced under the guise of “morality.” After 43 years, the Iranian women who refuse the instrumentalization of their bodies as sites of morality/freedom are in the forefront of the movement.

The shift to “Woman, Life, Freedom” in the recent protests thus represents a powerful questioning of sectarian orientation by moving toward solidarity and a different vision of world-making. “Woman, Life, Freedom” envisions a world that is not bound by nationalism, empty promises of rights or neoliberal competition, but one that strives for a life free of repression, injustice, scarcity and violence.

If sanctions kill softly in the name of rights and international security, if the Iranian state kills brutally in the name of morality and under the cloak of anti-imperialism, and if U.S. bombs kill shamelessly in the name of liberal democracy, then “Woman, Life, Freedom” strives for a life where death does not speak the last word.