The use of sanctions by one power against another to achieve political objectives is not new. But the manner and intensity with which they are being applied in the Persian Gulf by the US, the EU, Australia, NATO and its despot allies certainly is...
Some 2,400 years ago Athens declared a trade embargo against neighbouring Megara, which was allied to the enemy of Athens – Corinth. After 27 years of embargo and eventual war, Athens was humiliated as Megara and Corinth were triumphant in their dispute.
1973: Chilean workers march showing support for President Allende. The US instituted sanctions against Chile before supporting a bloody coup.
The trend was set. Most international sanctions have, throughout history, been the precursor to war. But the type of sanctions we are witnessing today being used to wage a form of war have their origins in the aftermath of the First World War.
US President Woodrow Wilson saw sanctions as an alternative to the slaughter on the battlefields of France, and a good deal cheaper. The US was to have nothing to do with the new League of Nations but would use sanctions and embargoes as a weapon instead of political or military engagement. He said that they needed to be “crafted” into a “deadly force”.
Nonetheless, such sanctions, as a tool of enforcing the wishes of the European victors, were built into the constitution of the League of Nations. Germany itself was under sanctions as the loser of the war, with strict limitations on its military development. The Saar industrial belt was forcibly demilitarised and punitive reparations were imposed.
After Hitler came to power and began to ignore these sanctions, it became clear that the victors had no intention of enforcing them. And when Mussolini’s fascist Italy began bombing Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then, the League of Nations huffed and puffed but proved unwilling or unable to impose any sanctions on Italy. The US, using its Neutrality Act, banned ships from Italy and Ethiopia from using US ports. This hit Italy, as Ethiopia was landlocked and had no shipping lines.
The only other sanctions imposed in the 1930s were on the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact the Republic was the democratically elected government that was being overthrown by some of its own military, led by the fascist Franco, both the US and League of Nations put in place an arms embargo on both sides. This was while Germany, in breach of its obligations not to rearm, was pouring weapons into the hands of the Franco forces along with Italy. The US later began to put its own trade sanctions on Japan in 1939 as that country began to threaten US interests in the Pacific.
After the Second World War the victors, including the USSR, created the United Nations. Again, sanctions as a tool for enforcing the will of the Security Council were built into its charter. They were seldom and weakly used before 1990 because the Soviet Union was a member of the Security Council with the power of veto.
But the US, with its economy intact, was in an ideal position to use unilateral sanctions against the USSR – and in 1948 that’s exactly what it did. In 1951 it tried to tighten those sanctions by refusing to aid any country that traded with the USSR in “strategic goods”, including oil.
The US also used economic sanctions against the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, elected in September 1970. Declassified records show a decision to move to sanctions to “bring him down” as early as 6 November 1970. Eventually, a US-backed coup did the job.
There were, though, some agreed UN sanctions. The UN called for all member states to cease the sale and shipments of arms to South Africa. This became mandatory in 1977, and in 1984 the new South African Constitution was declared null and void. There were US/EU/
Commonwealth sanctions on South Africa from 1985 to 1991. But the real forces that destroyed apartheid in South Africa were those organised workers inside the country and the Cuban, Angolan, SWAPO and ANC forces that broke the back of the South African army at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1989. The sanctions were ineffective and mainly to assuage domestic public opinion, as were the sanctions on Ian Smith's Rhodesia.
The big sanctions in the post-Second World War world were taken unilaterally, outside the UN, again by the USA. In April 1961, the US launched a military attack on its revolutionary neighbour Cuba, using Cuban exiles. It was the latest in US military interventions in the Caribbean and Central and Latin America, but it was a humiliating failure. And so it was in October 1962 after the Soviet Union had promised to defend Cuba, that the US unilaterally imposed a blockade of the island. This took sanctions to a new level. Nothing was to be allowed in and nothing was to be allowed out.
The missile standoff between the US on the one hand and the USSR and Cuba on the other was resolved with a promise that the US would not attack Cuba. But the US transformed its blockade of Cuba into the most severe economic, financial and political embargo in history that continues to this day. Its sugar was boycotted, no food, medicines, machinery, spare parts or oil products could be sold by US companies to Cuba, its airspace was closed to Cuba, Cuba was expelled from the Organization of American States at the demand of the US, and no ship entering a Cuban port could visit a US port for six months.
This was just the beginning. The US was to hone its skills at turning sanctions into a vicious weapon of war.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc (Cuba’s main trading partners), the US tightened the screw, introducing laws that made the sanctions extra-territorial. If, say, a Finnish company wanted to sell a piece of medical equipment to Cuba, and if that equipment had any part or software that was US-made or US-licensed, it was banned from doing so under threat of sanctions against that company and any of its subsidiaries. If a foreign company traded with Cuba and had a US-based subsidiary, sanctions would be applied against both the company and the subsidiary.
Banks were targeted to cut off Cuba’s ability to use the world banking system controlled by the mighty US Dollar. US-funded Radio Martí beamed anti-Cuban propaganda into Cuba, and any Cuban who could make it to US soil was automatically granted US citizenship. In 2004, Bush set up the Committee to Assist a Free Cuba with a $60 million budget to provide assistance to Cuban “dissidents”, with communication equipment and money and a plan to appoint a US Governor of Cuba and round up all Communist Party and trade union activists before a massive privatisation programme.
This type of super sanction wasn’t confined to Cuba. In 1979, Iranians overthrew the Shah, who had been put in place by the US and Britain when those countries organised a coup to get rid of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh. US hostages were taken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the USA tried to put a blockade around Iran similar to the one imposed on Cuba.
That didn’t work, and Iran was still sticking up two fingers at the US. So in a new twist of outsourcing war, the US encouraged its allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to raise a $60 billion war chest to fund a war against Iran by Iraq. When that war ended in a bloody stalemate, a desperate and bankrupt Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US mustered a “coalition of the willing” to oust Iraq from Kuwait in a war that did not cost the US one dollar. The mother of all UN sanctions (the USSR had by now collapsed and Russia was doing the US’s bidding) was then imposed on Iraq from 1991 until the Anglo–US invasion of 2003. It is estimated that 500,000 Iraqi children died from the effect of those sanctions and the depleted uranium left by US bombing.
Still trying to “contain” Iran, which by now was developing its own nuclear energy programme, the US ramped up sanctions against Iran using the UN, EU, NATO, Australia and the Gulf despots, and threatened any country or company that did not comply with its wishes. This is the situation we have today. The US has tried to stifle Iranian oil exports and destroy its Central Bank. It has dire extra-territorial trade sanctions on Iran and along with Israel uses cyber warfare, drones and assassination squads inside Iran. It is fighting a proxy war against Iran in Syria and will use Israel to fight a proxy war against Iran itself.
But these sanctions are often counterproductive. For example, the arms embargo against South Africa led to that country developing its own arms industry. Pakistan went nuclear as a result of sanctions. Thousands of fleeing Haitians were washed up dead on US beaches due to US sanctions on that country.
Sanctioned countries tend to cooperate with each other, hence relations between Iran and Venezuela and Cuba or, say, between Belarus and Iran and Syria. Although US sanctions have cost Cuba $60 billion and caused huge suffering, Cuba is about to hold the Presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC), while Iran now holds the Presidency of the Non Aligned Movement. And of course there are always China and Russia with whom to trade.
Last month the UN General Assembly voted 188–3 against the US blockade of Cuba. The rest of the world is saying No to the use of sanctions, recognising it as just another way of waging war. ■