Two Sides of Sanctions

Iran and the US both deploy sanctions against each other’s citizens; Iran is criticized but the US seems to get away with it.

On a sunny day in Washington, DC, my imaginary American scholar, Hannah Esfandiari, was sitting in her Kalorama-located house, opening a letter she had just received from Tehran, Iran.

It was a job offer from a prominent think tank at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s policy-making machine.  Her main job was going to be establishing contacts with Americans dissidents, scholars, and activists and inviting them to Tehran to speak to high-ranking Iranian policy-makers, top officers of the Revolutionary Guards, and the intelligence ministry.

But she could not take the job offer.  Not because she was afraid of being charged with assisting a “state sponsor of terrorism” and perhaps being sent to Guantanamo Bay, but simply because, based on the Iranian Transactions Regulations, it would be illegal for her or any other American to sign any contract with, accept any funds from, or give any service to an Iranian citizen or organization, wherever in the world.  Violating that law could cost her up to 20 years of jail and a $250,000 fine.

Now, let’s come back to the real world and consider a similar case about an Iranian citizen who was directing a prominent American think tank.

Haleh Esfandiari‘s job, as director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (established by the US Congress in 1981 and co-funded directly by the US government), was to invite Iranian dissidents, scholars, and activists to Washington to speak for and interact with high-ranking American policymakers and top military and intelligence officers.  (Absent from all media reports is that she has served among the first group of fellows at the controversial National Endowment for Democracy.)

But when she last visited Tehran using her Iranian passport, she was detained, charged with acting against Iran’s national security, and released on bail after a long investigation.

Since her arrest a few months ago, the American media, politicians, and scholars (including George Bush himself) made a huge fuss about the illegality of such detention and repeatedly called the charges against her bogus and appalling and insisted that Mrs. Esfandiari was totally innocent.

Quite hypocritical.  Everyone is overlooking the other side of the story about the way the American government is treating its citizens who would give such a service (in fact much less significant) to Iran.

If Iran prosecutes its citizens after they start giving service to the policy-making machine of its biggest enemy, the US doesn’t even allow such service in the first place by making it illegal and somehow punishes its citizens even before they start such service.

The delicate point here is that both countries try to protect their national security through such measures, but while the American method to do that is more severe, it never gets any bad publicity, because, on its surface, the legal framework it is using is sanctions against a “terrorist state,” not sanctions to protect national security.

This smart strategy prevents the American government from looking bad in public, while it achieves its goal of preventing the Iranian policymakers from interacting with American scholars and at the same time making Iran look bad when it does the same.

Perhaps it is time for Iran and other countries under American economic sanctions to strike back and begin using the legal frameworks of sanctions against the US to address their legitimate security concerns.

Hossein Derakhshan, born in Tehran, is a blogger, journalist, and multimedia developer based in Canada.  This article also appeared in The Guardian on 4 September 2007.  Visit his blog at <>.

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