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HomeMiddle EastTrump’s Sanctions Against Iran Violate the Rights of Iranian People

Trump’s Sanctions Against Iran Violate the Rights of Iranian People

Policy Brief By Bijan Ahmadi, Executive Director, Institute for Peace & Diplomacy

Submitted on May 9, 2019 to the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, House of Commons, Canada.

A year ago, the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the UN approved Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and re-imposed sanctions on Iran including its oil and financial sectors. The main victims of these unilateral sanctions are the Iranian people. Iranian economy has fallen into a deep recession since the reimposition of US sanctions. The sanctions are driving millions of ordinary Iranian citizens into poverty and have significantly impacted people’s access to medicine and health care.

Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activities and to allow for a stricter international inspections regime. In return, all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were supposed to be removed to facilitate the country’s re-engagement with the international economy. Based on 14 reports by the IAEA, Iran has fully complied with its obligations before and after US withdrawal.

The US sanctions, which are in violation of the UN Security Council resolution 2231, have hit the Iranian economy on all fronts. Many of the major corporations that entered the Iranian market after the nuclear agreement have already left the country in fear of US sanctions. Right after reimposition of US sanctions several countries either stopped purchasing oil from Iran or significantly reduced their purchases. Recently the Trump administration announced that it will not provide any waivers to importers of Iranian oil in an attempt to reduce Iran’s oil revenue to zero. Oil exports account for around 40% of Iran’s budget.

After reimposition of US sanctions, the Belgium-based SWIFT financial messaging service disconnected Iranian banks by halting services to facilitate their transactions. The Iranian currency Rial has lost nearly two-thirds of its value since Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. Based on recent reports, the Iranian economy shrank by around 4% in the last year. The IMF expects the Iranian economy to shrink further and the inflation rate to reach 40% this year. The Iranian people have been the main victims of the poor economic condition. Rising prices of food and basic necessities have put tremendous pressure on the ordinary citizens of Iran.

The US unilateral sanctions have severely impacted Iranians access to medicine. While US officials have repeatedly said that their sanctions include exemptions for food, medicine and humanitarian goods, in reality they have listed some of the major Iranian pharmaceutical companies in their list of sanctions. Also the sanctions on the Iranian banking system have significantly limited Iran’s ability to purchase necessary medicine and medical equipment and have sharply increased the cost for Iranian patients as a result.

In a recent correspondence published in The Lancet Oncology by Dr. Mithra Ghalibafian from MAHAK Pediatric Cancer Treatment and Research Center in Tehran and Dr. Eric Bouffet from The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto they have warned about possible medicine shortage for children with cancer in Iran and said “international global medical support is urgently needed to avoid looming medical tragedy”.

In addition to that, the UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy called the sanctions on Iran “unjust and harmful”. He further added that these sanctions “are destroying the economy and currency of Iran, driving millions of people into poverty and making imported goods unaffordable”. In a recent statement published last week Mr. Jazairy added “I am deeply concerned that one State can use its dominant position in international finance to harm not only the Iranian people, who have followed their obligations under the UN-approved nuclear deal to this day, but also everyone in the world who trades with them.”

UN Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy urges the international community to take action: “the international community must come together to challenge what amounts to blockades ignoring a country’s sovereignty, the human rights of its people, and the rights of third countries trading with sanctioned States, all while constituting a threat to world peace and security.”

The Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland has announced that Canada does not agree with president Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. In a statement issued by Minister Freeland’s office JCPOA has been considered to be “essential for ensuring regional and global security”. It is therefore upon the Canadian government to take concrete steps to preserve the Iran nuclear agreement in order to help Iranian people and also maintain peace and regional stability.

To save the Iran deal, Canada’s European allies have announced their plans for setting up a special payment mechanism or INSTEX to facilitate lawful trade and financial transactions with Iran. Switzerland is also planning to launch a payment system for Iran to purchase medicine and humanitarian goods. Canada must help its allies by joining these special payment systems and supporting their efforts on the international stage.

In addition, Canada should not follow the US policy against Iran. Any further Canadian sanctions against Iran at a time when Canada’s European allies are trying to resuscitate Iran nuclear deal will isolate Canada from Europe’s multilateral approach of diplomatic engagement and would bring us closer to reactionary policies of Donald Trump.

On the issue of access to medicine and medical equipment, considering the significant population of Iranians living in Canada and the strong network of Iranian-Canadian civil society organizations, the federal government can directly engage and support the efforts of credible and independent Iranian charities and non-profit organizations, which are working tirelessly to help Iranian patients who cannot access or afford necessary medications.

Furthermore, the Canadian government should take meaningful steps to diplomatically re-engage with Iran and re-establish diplomatic contacts between the two countries. The Harper government cut diplomatic relations with Iran back in 2012 with no credible reason as to why suspending relations would be in Canada’s best interest. Lack of diplomatic relations with Iran has hampered Canada’s ability to have positive influence in the region. Also without a mission in Iran, Canada has been unable to offer consular assistance and protect the rights of Canadian citizens in Iran at times of need.

In recent months, some have suggested that Canada must impose Magnitsky sanctions against Iran for its human rights record. However, proponents of Magnitsky sanctions against Iran have not presented any proof that their proposed sanctions under the Magnitsky Act will lead to improvements in the condition of human rights in Iran. In other words, it remains unclear what these sanctions aim to achieve that diplomacy and engagement will not. In fact, some foreign policy experts believe that these sanctions are not effective for human rights protection at all. Also proponents of these sanctions must explain how imposing sanctions on one country for human rights violations while keeping close and friendly relations with other rights abusers will not establish a double standard that could undermine Canada’s credibility and international standing.

The negotiations that led to the signing of the historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany) in 2015 along with Iranians’ full compliance, even after US withdrawal, is a clear indication that through constructive diplomatic engagement key conflicts and disagreements between the West and Iran can be effectively addressed. On the other hand resorting to sanctions, coercive tactics and regime change policies to force change in the Middle East have proven time and again to be disastrous and destabilizing especially for the people in the Middle East region. A great example of which can be found in the case of Iran’s neighbouring country of Iraq where sanctions and eventually military confrontation destabilized Iraq and led to the negative consequences which are still evident to this date in the region and beyond.

Instead of considering new sanctions against Iran or pursuing Trump’s misguided Iran policy, Canada must join its European allies in their efforts to preserve the nuclear agreement, re-establish diplomatic channels with Iran and help the Iranian people to ensure they can access humanitarian goods including medicine and medical equipment.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor