Azadeh Moaveni and Sussan Tahmasebi have a piece in the Times today protesting that sanctions on Iran mainly hurt the very people who hate the regime most, middle class women.
A few weeks after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned “brutal men of the regime” in Tehran for oppressing Iranian women who were demanding their rights. “As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms that the men of Iran possess,” Mr. Pompeo said. . . .
The decimation of Iran’s economy is unfolding in the lives of the very constituency that has been working for reform and liberalization, and in whose name Mr. Pompeo and other leading American officials speak: middle-class Iranian women. The slump is tearing away at their fragile gains in employment, upper management positions and leadership roles in the arts and higher education, while reducing their capacity to seek legal reforms and protections.
When the sanctions hit, Mahsa Mohammadi, a 45-year-old editor and language teacher in Tehran, was saving to pay for a graduate degree in education at a university in Istanbul. Her rent in Tehran doubled because of inflation, and she was forced to move with her young son to a small city with no cultural life.
Inflation continued rising; the rents doubled again. Ms. Mohammadi lost most of her income from English tutoring. No one could afford language classes anymore. She could then no longer afford even the small city. She moved to a cheaper, conservative hamlet near the Caspian Sea where people look down on divorced mothers. Studying abroad is now an increasingly elusive dream.
“All our demands and hopes have whittled away,” she said. “The pressure is unbearable.”
The problem with using sanctions as a weapon against repressive regimes was laid out by George Orwell in 1984. Orwell's mega-states fight endless wars against each other, partly to whip up patriotism but partly to use up resources that would otherwise lift the populace out of poverty and therefore out of their complete dependence on the regime. Digging and refilling enormous holes, he wrote, would work just as well, but war was more plausible.
Many social scientists have said the same thing more analytically: poverty helps thugs stay in power, because when resources are scarce they control the only path to a decent material life.
On the other hand we tried to opposite tack with China, thinking that trade and openness and rising incomes would moderate their regime, and that hasn't worked very well, either.
I am not sure where this leaves us, since I think war with Iran would be disastrous for everyone. Perhaps admitting that events in other countries are not really something we can or should try to do something about.