Today the U.S. Treasury Department reversed sanctions that barred "exportation of services and software used to share information over the Internet" to Iran, including Internet-based communications services such as web browsing, blogging, email, instant messaging, chat, social networking, and photo/movie sharing.
While the decision also included lifting restrictions on Sudan and Cuba, it is clear that it was largely aimed at Iran. "As recent events in Iran have shown, personal Internet-based communications like email, instant messaging and social networking are powerful tools ... [that] foster and support the free flow of information ...," said the Treasury Department news release.
However, the news release further stated that the administration will continue to expand sanctions on Iran. "At the same time as we take these steps, the Administration will continue aggressively to enforce existing sanctions and to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on the Government of Iran to meet its international obligations," said the statement.
Herein lies an inherent contradiction in the U.S. government's stance on Iran sanctions. The rationale for lifting the internet sanctions is to provide tools to facilitate the free flow of information to assist citizens in bringing about political change. But before people can employ such tools, a significantly large number of them need to have access to computers, broadband internet communications, cell phones equipped with video cameras, wireless communications infrastructures, and perhaps most importantly, they need to enjoy a high degree of literacy. All of this come with economic prosperity. Sanctions hinder economic development. You can lift the sanctions on "exportation of services and software used to share information over the Internet" to Sudan, but that doesn't mean those tools will be employed by a sufficiently large number of Sudanese citizens to affect political change! For that to happen, you would need a prosperous and highly literate population that can effectively employ those tools and services. (Iran's CIA-estimated GDP is $876B compared to Sudan's $92B, while Iran's per capita GDP is $12,900 compared to Sudan's $2,300)
One of the main reasons why the dominant discourse in Iran has changed from revolution and Islamism to non-violence, universal rights, and liberty is that Iranians have become highly educated and relatively prosperous over the last two decades. This is despite the Islamic Republic, not because of it. Sanctions that hinder economic development also help delay political development, and the external confrontation resulting from foreign sanctions help distort domestic politics by focusing attentions outwards. One can only speculate that if economic sanctions had not been imposed on Iran since 1995, and if the decades-long US-Iran political standoff had not distorted internal Iranian politics, the change in the dominant national discourse towards universal rights and liberty might have come about much sooner, and had succeeded by now in instituting meaningful political change. On the other hand, one can imagine that if "crippling" sanctions had been imposed on Iran for decades, Iranians would not have attained the degree of prosperity needed to enable them to use the tools they are using today to put their leadership on notice.
Some supporters of the Green Movement have advocated "targeted" or "smart" sanctions that "don't hurt the Iranian people" in general, but weaken the regime's hardliners only. If we accept that such sanctions can be implemented in the actually existing world (which is by no means clear), and if we lived in a world ruled by political leaders genuinely interested in peace, universal rights, and the rule of law, then such an approach might have been helpful as yet another tool in weakening the domestic forces opposing political change in Iran. But instead we live in a world largely led by corrupt, criminal political elites who have an utter contempt for universal rights and the rule of law; leaders whose priority, first and foremost, is to line up the pockets of the super wealthy power elites that help install them in power. The central function of the political and economic structures that are designed, implemented, and maintained by these political elites is to suck wealth out of communities at home and around the globe while leaving a trail of environmental destruction behind. In such a world, sanctions have proved to be an important step in, and integral to preparations for imperial wars of conquest. Therefore, for those genuinely interested in positive political change in Iran, it is best to oppose all sanctions, rather than fall into the trap of dubious "targeted" or "limited" sanctions.
As for U.S. government policy on sanctions, the same rationale at work in lifting the internet-related sanctions on Iran today, should be brought to its logical conclusion of lifting all sanctions. Iranians interpreted the election of President Barak Obama, rightly or wrongly, as a sign that the biggest external threat to their lives and livelihood had temporarily receded. This prompted them to look inwards and take full advantage of the tiny opening created by the June presidential elections to demand their universal rights. Imagine the possibilities if the U.S. were to genuinely change its threatening posture by unconditionally lifting all sanctions and removing the threat of military action from the proverbial "table".
Treasury Department Issues New General License to Boost Internet-Based Communication, Free Flow of Information in Iran,
Sudan and Cuba: http://www.treas.gov/press/releases/tg577.htm
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