Become a Member

Join PSC
Fill 1
PSC Rally across the Brooklyn Bridge

Home » Clarion » 2019 » September 2019 » Sanctions: war by other means?

Sanctions: war by other means?


On May 1 the union’s International Committee held a roundtable discussion on the question “Should an anti-war union oppose US sanctions?” In the midst of talk of war and aggression by the Trump administration, the question is as timely as ever for a progressive labor union like the PSC.

We ask this question because sanctions can kill as certainly as bombs, through hunger and displacement. With sanctions on Iran and Venezuela so closely linked to threats of war, sanctions and the dangers they pose to peace are currently preoccupying many people.

Sanctions may take the form of comprehensive boycott on a country or on targeted individuals or businesses in a country. The United States uses sanctions more than any other state and currently has over 20 states in its sights. The intention is to further US global hegemony by influencing the foreign and domestic policies of other nations. Our roundtable featured speakers on three of the most politically immediate ones.

Gregory Wilpert, author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, founder of, and managing editor of The Real News Network, addressed the effect of US sanctions on Venezuela from the first sanctions imposed by the Bush administration in 2006, which vetoed Venezuela’s access to international loans, through Obama’s 2015 declaration of Venezuela as a national security threat to the United States, up to Trump’s stopping all of the country’s oil exports to the United States in 2019. In all, these led to a major decrease in oil production resulting in the loss of an estimated $30 billion of revenue, hyperinflation and social effects such as the deterioration of the power grid, water supply, transportation and loss of food and medicine imports, resulting in an estimated 40,000 deaths (see: Mark Weisbrot & Jeffrey Sachs, “Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela,” The Center for Economic and Policy Research, April 2019).


Hamideh Sedghi, author of Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling, provided historical background to current sanctions on Iran. An early US intervention followed the 1951 Iranian nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. He was removed in 1953 by a CIA- and MI6-led coup that propped up the monarchical rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1979 a revolution against the shah and against American imperialism led to another attempted coup, which resulted in 52 American hostages being held for 444 days. Hostilities continue today around Iran’s alleged nuclear capabilities, which Trump has again challenged. Professor Sedghi’s analysis is that the United States protects Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other proxies in the Middle East and its own imperialist interests from Iran in this protracted confrontation.

Reza Ghorashi, author of “The Effects of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) on the Iranian Economy,” detailed with PowerPoint charts and graphs how sanctions have weakened Iran. After Iran began to recover from Obama-imposed sanctions, the US Treasury Department imposed new ones in May 2018. Oil production and its attendant revenues decreased, resulting in a decline of food imports, inflation and hunger. Waivers were granted by the State Department to eight countries to continue purchasing oil from Iran, but those have now been lifted as the United States seeks to strangle the country’s economy. Forcing countries who depend and rely on Iranian oil amounts to a secondary boycott on them should they continue to trade with Iran, which is considered illegal by international law by the United Nations Charter as a breach of national sovereignty – the Guardian extensively covered this subject in August of 2018.

Jeremy Kuzmarov, coauthor of The Russians Are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce, analyzed the current demonization of Russia as an aspect of geopolitical rivalry since the Putin-led nationalist economic recovery of Russia after Yeltsin’s US-sponsored “shock therapy” of privatization, which led to record poverty and corruption levels. The Magnitsky Act of 2012 brought the first of 60 rounds of sanctions on Russian individuals and companies, based on still unproven grounds that Sergei Magnitsky, accountant for billionaire investor and tax-evader Bill Browder, had been murdered in prison ostensibly for whistle-blowing on a government scam. In fact, Magnitsky was an employee of Browder, an investor now living in the UK, who pilfered more than $4 billion in the Russian oil and gas industry after the fall of the Soviet Union. Browder has been convicted of tax evasion in Russia and has faced arrest by INTERPOL.


More sanctions followed the Ukrainian coup of 2014 that led to a pro-Russian separatist movement and to Crimea’s vote to rejoin Russia, defined by the United States as aggression. Alleged Russian tampering with the 2016 US elections has increased bipartisan support for sanctions and the language of war. So far, sanctions have hurt but not severely damaged the Russian economy.

The audience discussion that followed these presentations was lively and seemed to strengthen the organizers’ perception of sanctions as war as something to be opposed by an expressly anti-war union such as the PSC.

Renate Bridenthal is a professor emerita of history at Brooklyn College. Immanuel Ness is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.

Jump to Content
All Out for Job Security & Fair Raises - Sign Up for May Actions!