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Truthdigger of the Week: Andrew Cockburn

Posted on Sep 15, 2013
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By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.

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War is not fought with bombs and bullets alone. Nations can be wrestled into submission or degradation by economic means, namely heavily penalized general or specific prohibitions on trade between companies and a target state. These sanctions, which are the equivalent of a siege in wartime, are a favorite tool of the United States, which has 23 such programs ongoing today, “a living memorial to the national-security preoccupations of past decades,” Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Andrew Cockburn wrote in that publication’s September issue.

Sanctions do not always need to be the devil’s tool. They can be used smartly against genuine threats with minimal damage to innocent parties, if any at all. But U.S. leaders have used them to devastating, unconscionable effect. A favorite example of critics is the reported deaths of at least half a million Iraqi children under sanctions imposed by President George W. Bush and retained by President Bill Clinton. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously told CNN interviewer Lesley Stahl those deaths were “worth it.” As Cockburn wrote, that number is far more than “estimates of the total death toll from subsequent violence—a still horrific 174,000.”

While he toured a ward of “sickly, wasted infants” in Iraq during the first summer of sanctions after the Gulf War, one hospital staffer cried to him: “No Iraqi babies invaded Kuwait, so why must they suffer?”

Proponents of the practice are concentrated most potently in the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the department of the Treasury that conceives, writes and executes sanctions law, according to one Washington attorney who spoke to Cockburn. The office peddles its product as “a heck of a lot better than war.” But Cockburn, whose meticulous scholarship comes through at every point in his Harper’s article, knows better. “Just as air power has evolved from the area bombing of entire cities during World War II to ‘precision’ drone strikes,” he writes, “so the theory and practice of sanctions has evolved from straightforward blockades into a more ambitious and intricate system known as ‘conduct-based targeting,’ aimed at the economic paralysis of thousands of designated … people, companies [and] organizations.”


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“Drone operations attract widespread comment, inquiry, denunciation,” he continues. But America’s “modern economic warfare, though it bends the global financial system to its ends and can blight entire societies, operates well below the radar, frequently justified as a benign alternative to military action.”

So what has the United States done to Iran? The U.S. first targeted the country after the takeover of the American embassy in 1979. In consequence Iran lost 60 percent of its oil exports, the ability to freely spend money earned from remaining oil sales, insurance for its transport ships and the ability to participate in the international banking system. The result was and continues to be the contraction of the nation’s economy and gathering inflation. As is clear, these limitations do not affect the government alone.

Just a fraction of the rest of the offenses read like a sadist’s grocery list. Three thousand Iranian cargo ships are stranded, meaning food and medicine—which are “theoretically exempt from this blockade”—are virtually impossible to import. Americans who inherit an Iranian business are candidates for arrest. Anyone subject to U.S. laws faces “jail time for exporting medical equipment to Iran or investing in an Iranian certificate of deposit.” Costco recently reported it had allowed six employees of targeted Iranian institutions in Japan and Britain to patronize its stores. The company “duly struck” the customers “from its membership rolls.”

Negotiations under President Obama, who early on expressed an interest in pursuing diplomacy with Iran while maintaining “targeted” sanctions, blocked the acquisition of highly enriched nuclear fuel necessary for the production of medical isotopes to treat 850,000 Iranian cancer patients. Fuel shortages resulting from the targeting of gasoline imports in 2010 made it harder for ordinary Iranians to get around and forced drivers to use low-quality, locally refined gasoline, which made pollution worse. In 2011, sanctions were imposed on any foreign bank that made oil deals with the nation’s central bank. “In 2012, Obama signed the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, cutting off access to the U.S. market for any foreign company doing business with Iran’s energy sector and freezing any American assets they might have.”

Other recent legislation has targeted all remaining Iranian oil exports and choked off the country’s access to dwindling foreign currency reserves, which are necessary to reduce the costs of international trade. One rejected provision sought to punish “relatives of sanctions violators, including uncles, nephews, great-grandparents, great-grandchildren, and so forth.” In the past year, Iranian currency collapsed from 16,000 rials to 36,000—the precise hoped-for outcome of the sanctions plan. The price of a kilo of low-quality minced meat recently doubled in the course of a week to a day’s pay for an average construction worker.

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