Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told BBC Persian Wednesday that it is up to Iran’s leaders to decide whether or not the Iranian people should eat — mere days after the Trump administration imposed its harshest sanctions yet against Iran, bringing its citizens to the brink of poverty.
Responding to a question from BBC Persian’s Hadi Nili about what efforts the Trump administration is taking “to make sure that medicine and food could be exempted from all the sanctions,” Pompeo said, “we’re going to work to do two things: that things that are sanctioned don’t happen, and things that are permitted to happen are permissible, and can in fact happen.”
“Just so you remember,” he added, “the leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat … That’s the Iranian government’s choice on how to use Iranian wealth. If they choose to squander, if the Iranian leadership chooses to spoil it, if they choose to use it in a way that doesn’t benefit the Iranian people, I’m very confident the Iranian people will take a response that tries to fix that themselves as well.”
— Eskandar Sadeghi 🌹 (@EskandarSadeghi) November 8, 2018
Pompeo’s comments come just days after he tweeted his support for the Iranian people, claiming that U.S. sanctions “do not apply to the sale of food, agriculture, medicine, and medical devices.”
ایالات متحده با ایستادن در کنار مردم ایران با آنها ابراز همبستگی می کند. مردم ایران پس از گذشت تقریبا ۴٠سال بیشترین صدمه را از سو مدیریت و فساد اقتصادی خورده اند. برخلاف آنچه رژیم ایران می گوید، تحریم های ما شامل فروش غذا، محصولات کشاورزی، دارو، و تجهیزات پزشکی نمی شود. pic.twitter.com/J7aLVFCaTk
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 5, 2018
But the secretary’s comments seem to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about the way sanctions work. While humanitarian goods, like medicine, are indeed officially exempt from sanctions, international banks and businesses are hesitant about trading with Iran altogether, even when it comes to food and medicine, out of fear that they will face punishment should they run afoul — even accidentally — of those sanctions.
The French ambassador to the United States explained as much last week, when he pressed the Trump administration to clarify the steps that European banks need to take in order to trade legally with Iran, without risking backlash.
“We are expecting our American friends to make some gestures on humanitarian goods,” Ambassador Gerard Araud said at the Hudson Institute, according to the Guardian. “Of course humanitarian goods are not sanctioned. But the fact is, the banks are so terrified of sanctions that they don’t want to do anything with Iran. It means that in a few months, there is a strong risk that there will be shortage of medicine in Iran if we don’t do something positive.”
He added that simply exempting humanitarian goods is insufficient. “If you don’t say how to do it, the banks will not do it. So we are waiting for a technical answer.”
On Friday, the state department’s special envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, took a drastically different approach, telling reporters, “The burden is not on the United States to identify the safe channels … We have done our part to permit the sale of humanitarian goods to Iran. That is our part. That is our role. Iran has a role to make these transactions possible. Banks do not have confidence in Iran’s banking system … That’s Iran’s problem; it is not our problem.”
Tyler Cullis, an associate attorney at Ferrari & Associates, who specializes in U.S. economic sanctions, told ThinkProgress via email that, instead of mitigating the humanitarian risks associated with sanctions, “Secretary Pompeo has decided to wash his hands of these consequences by prematurely and conveniently pinning the blame on Iran’s government.”
Meanwhile, Iranian citizens continue to struggle to deal with the rapidly rising costs of basic necessities. The value of Iran’s currency has plummeted more than 70 percent over the past year. Unemployment is rising. And rates of drug addiction and suicide attempts have increased.
While Pompeo claims that it’s up to the Iranian government to decide whether people eat, the regime has started a program to provide food packages to millions of eligible low-income families. But, as the Financial Times reported, the future of such programs depends on whether Iran continues to earn money through oil exports — an unlikely prospect given the Trump administration’s most recent oil sanctions.
“The consequences of this policy are clear,” said Cullis. “Iran will face grave difficulties importing essential goods, including food, medicine, and medical supplies, and the Iranian people will have an even more dire struggle paying for any goods that are available in Iran as Iran’s currency collapses.”