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General view of a hospital where health officers, wearing masks and special protective suits, take care of a patient infected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a hospital in Tehran, Iran on March 02, 2020. (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

General view of a hospital where health officers, wearing masks and special protective suits, take care of a patient infected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a hospital in Tehran, Iran on March 02, 2020. (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

How Many Nedas? Iran Sanctions Are Biological Warfare Against Civilians

This is not an economic policy. It is the collective punishment of civilians. It is an act of biological warfare against children, the elderly, and people of all ages.

Richard Eskow

The world was rightfully shocked and outraged in 2005 by the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman shot during a protest. “She was a person full of joy,” said her music teacher, who was with her when she died. “She was a beam of light.”

According to her teacher, Neda’s last words were, “I’m burning. I’m burning.”

In the United States, politicians from both parties mourned Neda. Where are they now, as the Trump Administration tightens sanctions against Iran? This is not an economic policy. It is the collective punishment of civilians. It is an act of biological warfare against children, the elderly, and people of all ages.

That may sound like heated rhetoric, but it’s the product of careful analysis.

The Sick and the Innocent

Even before the pandemic, Iranian civilians were suffering and dying as a result of US sanctions. A report from Human Rights Watch found that “current economic sanctions, despite the humanitarian exemptions, are causing unnecessary suffering to Iranian citizens afflicted with a range of diseases and medical conditions.”

"The Iranian people are being deprived of critical medical supplies even as the pandemic strikes in its full force. Sanctions don’t target Iran’s leaders, who will in all likelihood receive the care they need. It targets civilians, which very likely violates international law, and therefore US law. It clearly violates moral law."

An article in The Lancet medical journal concluded in November 2018 that sanctions “will inevitably lead to a decrease in survival of children with cancer.”

“A decrease in survival of children.”

An Iranian physician who practices nuclear medicine wrote in another medical journal that sanctions have made it extremely difficult for medical companies to obtain supplies, with nuclear medicine further complicated by its use of material regulated by atomic agencies.  The conclusion: “The most critical patients have been affected the worst including children, patients with cancer, hemophilia, cardiovascular disease, asthma and epilepsy.”

That was before the pandemic. And now?

“Iran is Italy,” said a former State Department official, “only on steroids.”

The Iranian people are being deprived of critical medical supplies even as the pandemic strikes in its full force. Sanctions don’t target Iran’s leaders, who will in all likelihood receive the care they need. It targets civilians, which very likely violates international law, and therefore US law.

It clearly violates moral law.

Martyrs and Children

Murder by deprivation is a central theme in Iranian culture and history. It is reflected the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who  was trapped with his family and surrounded by hostile forces at Karbala.

The soldiers refused to give them water, a sanction that led to thirst. Hussein finally approached his enemy, the story says, to plead for mercy while holding his infant son. In response, the child was murdered with an arrow.

"If we can wake up to the savagery and immorality of our own actions, this could become a defining moment in ours."

Now, the United States is playing out the ancient role of a ruthless and murderous enemy, willing to bring about the deaths of children in pursuit of power. It’s an act that could resonate for generations, destabilizing the region and the world. These sanctions are America’s arrow.

Silent Complicity

The Trump Administration’s smug glibness reflects the pathological inhumanity of these sanctions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insists that they don’t apply to medical devices, even as an equally thuggish State Department operatives brags about the “super-maximum economic pressure” being brought to bear against the plague-ridden country.

They’re playing it cute in the State Department. We’re not stopping them from buying medicines of medical equipment, they say. We’re just blocking their access to oil sales, banking, and other financial transactions, so they have no money to buy them. People are dying, and they’re playing word games.

Only nine members of Congress signed a recent letter calling for an easing of those sanctions. Where are the others, the ones who once told us how much they cared about Neda?

To be silent about this collective punishment is to be complicit. People should call their senators and representatives to insist they stand against this act.

US sanctions were already causing death and suffering, including a pre-existing shortage of medical goods and supplies going into the pandemic. To continue them now is to create even more deaths. More Nedas. More Karbalas.

John McCain, the hawkish senator who achieved some sort of secular sainthood after his death, insisted that Neda’s death was “a defining moment” in Iran’s history. But then, John McCain also sang “bomb Iran” to the tune of an old doo-wop song. In the warped moral arithmetic of American politics, apparently some lives are worth more than others.

If we can wake up to the savagery and immorality of our own actions, this could become a defining moment in ours. In the meantime, the new Nedas of Iran have a message for us:

They’re burning. They’re burning.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Richard Eskow

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on eskow.substack.com. His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works. 

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