Seven months have passed since the murder of Mahsa Amini by Iran’s “morality police,” which led to nationwide protests, and the Iranian regime’s future remains highly debated.
While some advocate for a combination of internal protest and external pressure in order to achieve regime change, others argue that sanctions hurt the protesters. Removing sanctions, the argument goes, could be the key to empowering Iran’s democratic movement.
The recent Foreign Affairs article “How Sanctions Hurt Iran’s Protesters” presents this argument, asserting that economic pressure leads to financial instability, which in turn undermines the protesters’ ability to bring about change. The article further posits that by lifting sanctions on the regime, the democratic movement could be significantly strengthened.
This argument is flawed, however, and such a policy would be counterproductive and could enhance the regime’s ability to suppress dissent. As I have written elsewhere, sanctions relief would enable the regime to fund its coercive apparatus rather than empower ordinary Iranians.
The Iranian regime allocates substantial resources to its intelligence and military institutions, which play a crucial role in maintaining the regime’s internal repression apparatus. These institutions would only be strengthened by a massive infusion of cash.
Thanks to the imposition of sanctions, the regime faces a budget deficit. This financial shortfall has made it increasingly difficult for the regime to sustain its repression of the Iranian population. Lifting sanctions would ease this burden and inadvertently hinder the protest movement’s efforts.
Moreover, there is no historical evidence to suggest that lifting sanctions on oppressive regimes bolsters democracy. On the contrary, history provides several examples of sanctions contributing to positive outcomes in terms of democratization and human rights.
The international sanctions on the South African apartheid regime are a case in point. The U.S.’s Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 imposed tough sanctions on the white minority regime, which crippled the machinery that upheld apartheid. The United Nations’ economic and political pressure was also essential in isolating the regime from the community of nations and exerting significant economic pressure on the South African government. As a result, the regime began to make significant reforms that eventually resulted in the transition to a democratic government and the end of apartheid.
In the case of Myanmar, the 2011 U.S. and E.U. sanctions on the ruling military regime compelled its leaders to implement democratic reforms, including the release of political prisoners, an end to human rights violations and the initiation of a political dialogue with democratic opposition leaders.
After sanctions were lifted however, the Rohingya crisis and the 2021 military coup took place. Something similar happened in Belarus. Lifting sanctions on the country allowed dictator Alexander Lukashenko to consolidate his power.
In 2016, the E.U. ended asset freezes and travel bans on 170 companies and individuals, including Lukashenko himself, in hopes of encouraging Lukashenko to implement political reforms. Unfortunately, lifting sanctions only worsened the situation. Lukashenko has become increasingly repressive, forcing European nations to reimpose sanctions.
In another case, lifting sanctions on the Zimbabwean regime did not lead to an improvement in the human rights situation in the country. The U.S. and E.U. imposed sanctions on the regimes of Robert Mugabe and his successor Pmmerson Mnangagwa due to restrictions on press freedoms and a lack of democratic reforms. Some of these sanctions were later removed, in hopes that this would encourage the Zimbabwean government to implement such reforms, but they never materialized.
These examples suggest that lifting sanctions on the Iranian regime is unlikely to yield the desired outcome. In fact, it will likely have the opposite effect.
Instead of sanctions relief, Western countries should impose more severe and targeted sanctions, including on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his entourage, who are directly responsible for innumerable human rights abuses and the repression of their country’s democratic movement.
Another way to empower Iran’s revolutionary movement is to organize and promote widespread labor strikes, which can disrupt daily life, paralyze the regime’s economy and hinder the regime’s malignant operations. The Iranian opposition, in collaboration with Western governments, groups and organizations, should mobilize resources and support such forms of protest.
As Jack Goldstone, a prominent expert on social revolutions, has pointed out, strikes are a critical factor in the success of the ongoing protests in Iran. Workers have shown that they are eager to join the protest movement, but they face challenges like the unstable employment situation. Most of them are employed on temporary contracts, which harms their ability to mobilize. If workers in crucial sectors, particularly oil and other vital industries, receive financial support, they are more likely to strike.
However, financial support should not come from lifting sanctions on the regime. Instead, it should come through methods that evade the regime’s attempts to block financial transfers. An effective strategy would be to establish a clandestine strike fund and send resources directly to workers through informal money transfer systems that use cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, or by physically smuggling cash into Iran and distributing it to workers.
International trade unions, NGOs and humanitarian organizations can also support Iranian workers. In 2021, around 80 trade unions worldwide expressed their support for a series of strikes that took place in Iran. They should do so again.
If the measures outlined above are applied correctly and carefully, they could potentially lead to the regime’s collapse, rather than its empowerment and perpetuation.
Farhad Rezaei is a senior fellow at the Philos Project.