OPINION: Biden must lift sanctions on Iran now

Jacob Sawyer, Staff Writer

When one thinks of Iran, they most likely envision a tyrannical rogue nation set on brutally, punishing their citizenry, amassing a huge nuclear arsenal and wiping out the rest of the world. These assumptions do contain grains of truth. The Islamic nation does have a long record of human-rights violations, including wrongful imprisonment of several journalists. Armed Iranian students were responsible for the seizure of American hostages for 444 days in 1979. The country’s military has also shown hostility and conducted sporadic attacks on American forces and pro-U.S. militias within the Middle East. Clearly, Washington and Tehran are not friends, and unfortunately, we cannot expect them to be friends anytime soon.

However, the mindset that Iran is a dangerous foe that must be ruthlessly punished is greatly exaggerated. Some Americans gained this mindset from years of biased and sensationalized media coverage that took advantage of collective trauma from Islamic terrorist attacks, most notably 9/11. While these attacks should not be downplayed under any circumstances, media fear-mongering has led to widespread hate and discimination against Muslims and eventually the rise of right-wing populist leaders throughout the west, most notably former U.S. President Donald Trump. 

During his four years in office, Trump generated widespread outrage across the globe for his nationalist actions. His most infamous incidents include the 2017 ban on travel from several Muslim-majority nations, separating thousands of transnational families and the order to withdraw the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action the following year. Widely referred to as the “Iran nuclear deal,” the agreement was enacted in 2015 to allow Tehran to be free of U.S. sanctions as long as it limited its production of nuclear agents. Citing baseless claims of it being ineffective and “rotten,” Trump pulled out of the deal to impose sanctions that have devastated Iran’s civilian population and economy. Although he pulled the U.S. out of the deal, he did little to curb its nuclear program or human rights abuses. 

Since 2018, the people of Iran have been subject to a severe economic recession akin to the Great Depression in the U.S. The country’s overall inflation rate stood at 41%, more than 20 times the U.S.’ healthy rates of 1-2% in the same period. Inflation on food, one of the most essential goods in any economy, hit a staggering 79%. Poverty rates have also surged significantly. In fiscal year 2016-17, 16 out of 100 Iranians earned less than $1.08 per day. The rate increased by at least 30% in 2017-18, and most likely continued increasing over the following years. For context, starving Iranians are ransacking grocery stores and fighting over rotten and “rejected” groceries at closing. Before the sanctions, grabbing rejected groceries was very rare. 

The grievances of the Iranian citizenry garnered global outrage in early 2020 when Trump ordered the assassination of top general Qasem Soleimani with no provocation. The deranged American president tried to claim, once again without evidence, that American interests were in imminent danger, but could not cover up his lie for long. After all, even if Soleimani was a threat, how would killing him and dealing another blow to Iran improve the situation for either side? 

Following the senseless murder, the Iranian peoples’ grievances became exemplified: tens of thousands of mourners inundated the streets of Tehran, portraying Soleimani as a martyr and Trump as an evil villain. A reporter for the New York Times remarked that she had “never seen anything like this” in her 25 years covering the Islamic nation. The massive patriotism exhibited in Tehran came on the heels of massive anti-government protests months earlier against a week-long nationwide Internet shutdown, underscoring just how traumatic the killing of Soleimani was for the Iranian people.

Fast-forward nine months. Amidst an extremely tough period of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s refusal to ease sanctions, pushing Tehran to economic collapse, many Iranians, including President Hassan Rouhani, welcomed Biden’s victory in the U.S. 2020 presidential election. Rouhani said he was not excited, given Washington’s and Tehran’s long history of turmoil, but welcomed the departure of “terrorist” Trump. 

Unfortunately, though, Iran’s hopes of returning to the nuclear deal and reviving its economy already appear in jeopardy. President Biden has declared that he is open to returning to the nuclear deal, but only if Tehran ceases its production of uranium. Yes, the country has enriched much more uranium than allotted under the deal, but one must remember the U.S. was the first to break the deal, back in 2018. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed willingness to return to compliance with the deal, but only if Washington acts first by lifting sanctions. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Biden on Feb. 8 that he can either take such action and help restore peace or “build on [Trump’s] failures” and “bring further failure.”

But Tehran’s manufacturing of uranium unravels another strong argument against U.S. sanctions: they never met their goal of curbing Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, these sanctions, combined with the killing of the nuclear scientist, likely motivated Tehran to further increase its program. Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi admonished that the Islamic Republic may consider building its first nuclear weapon, significantly increasing the potential for war and complicating the road to de-escalation and peace, unless Biden swiftly revokes U.S. sanctions. 

This situation is a bit like police chases: when the cops stop a driver who is not wanted for a crime, the driver usually pulls over and the stop goes peacefully. But motorists who are wanted for a serious violation of the law often flee, sometimes causing further havoc in the form of violent collisions. This behavior is similar to Iran working towards obtaining a nuclear weapon after the U.S. took away its incentive to abide by the deal in the form of sanctions. Both the fleeing driver and Tehran are in a “nothing-to-lose” scenario where they have little to risk by fighting back and not following the rules.

To return the U.S. and Iran to the nuclear deal and help reduce tensions, Biden must take the first step and immediately lift the sanctions on Tehran. In the three years since former President Trump imposed them, the people of Iran have suffered senseless economic devastation and poverty, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have also experienced other collective traumas at the hands of Trump, including the murder of their top general. As for the nuclear program itself, Iran has only gained extra motivation to expand it, which Tehran was able to do in spite of U.S. sanctions. If the sanctions are removed, then Iran will once again have the incentive to return its program to compliance with the nuclear deal. But that will only happen if Biden acts first and acts now.