19/08/2013 13:25 BST | Updated 19/08/2013 13:25 BST

Iran and Iraq: Déjà Vu All Over Again

The economic sanctions choking Iran today should remind us of a similar situation in Iraq. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United Nations Security Council imposed the most severe sanctions in the history of global governance. Nearly every country in the world was prohibited from buying oil or exporting goods to Iraq--a country that was completely dependent on oil exports for income, and relied heavily on imports of everything from food to ambulance tires. Initially, even food exports to Iraq were not allowed. After the devastating bombing campaign of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, a UN envoy described the situation as "near apocalyptic." But the sanctions prevented Iraq from rebuilding. Even with the Oil for Food Program a few years later, Iraq never came close to recovering. The head of UNICEF in Iraq told a US congressional delegation that the problems caused by the sanctions would have a major impact on the future of Iraqi children. She talked about civil unrest caused by disaffected youth "with no hope of education, job, or a future." That, she said, will be very dangerous.

Iran was supposed to be altogether different. The sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN, the US, the EU, and others are supposed to be "smart sanctions." They are supposed to be measures that target the regime, the military, and above all, Iran's nuclear program. They are not supposed to be destroying Iran's health care, education, nutrition, or basic needs for the poor. But that is exactly what the sanctions are doing. For all the talk of "nuclear program" and "ballistic missiles," the sanctions are in fact designed to undermine Iran's entire banking system, all of its imports, all of its exports, and its entire energy sector. In combination, that is how you cripple a modern nation's ability to meet the basic needs of its entire population.

The US has been the most aggressive, imposing sanctions against Iran since 1979. In the 1990s, the US passed legislation punishing foreign corporations that did business with Iran. Britain was one of the countries that was most vocal in objecting to these "extraterritorial" laws, along with other countries in the EU. But a couple years ago, there was a profound shift, and the EU joined the US in imposing measures to undermine Iran's entire economy and infrastructure--measures that went far beyond what the UN Security Council was asking for. These unilateral sanctions have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Instead, they target Iran's oil exports, which are critical to the nation's economy; all of Iran's shipping lines and ports; and Iran's imports of gasoline, which are critical to the entire transportation system. They target every major Iranian bank, and all international financial transactions.

The effects have been deeply damaging. Last autumn, Iran's currency, the rial, lost 40% of its value--in one week. Meat, fruit, and dairy products have now become a luxury. One restaurant owner commented wryly, "It's like everyone has become a vegetarian overnight." But it's not just the runaway inflation that's the problem. It's the collapse of the nation's entire industrial sector. Factory owners can no longer get raw materials or spare parts from abroad, because shipping companies are at risk of heavy penalties for carrying Iranian goods, or docking in Iranian ports. As factories shut down, massive numbers of workers are laid off from their jobs. Last September, one economist reported that in the prior 12 months, an estimated 40% of the men in Iran's major cities had lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, bankruptcies have tripled in the last three years.

Even where there are "humanitarian exemptions," they do little good. Pharmaceutical companies are in theory permitted to sell medical goods to Iran, but it hardly matters. In practice, they cannot sell even urgently needed medicines for cancer, AIDS, and hemophilia, because they can no longer find any bank in Europe or North America that will handle Iran's payments for these purchases. Nonprofits that are trying to ship vaccines and medicines to Iran cannot find a ship that will carry them--because US and European laws prohibit insurance companies from providing maritime insurance to ships delivering goods to Iran.

To be clear, Iran is not nearly in the same condition as Iraq was. That is because, in addition to the sanctions, all of Iraq's infrastructure was bombed to the ground--electrical generators, roads, dams, factories, water treatment plants. But make no mistake: the sanctions on Iran are comprehensive sanctions. The damage is massive, and it is indiscriminate. Those who are suffering most are the poor, who can no longer afford to buy nutritious food; the sick, who cannot find medicines for the most serious life-threatening diseases; the working class, which is now facing staggering levels of unemployment; and the middle class, which is disappearing altogether, as their salaries become worthless, their savings evaporate, and their relatives abroad cannot find a bank anywhere in the US or Europe that will wire funds to their families in Iran.

There is nothing "smart" about these sanctions. The US, the Security Council, and the European Union may invoke security as the reason for their policies. But from Weimar Germany to present-day Iraq, we should by now know that devastating an entire people, whether by bombs or by the relentless degradation of daily life, does not in the end bring greater security for anyone.