The Double Threat of Sanctions And The Pandemic In Iran: Time To End The Us-Iran Shadow War?

Archi Jain

“They offer a glass of muddy water but they don’t say that they’ve blocked this nation from [accessing] the main [water] springs.”

President Hasan Rouhani, on March 23, after President Trump offered to help the country but not uplift the sanctions

Iran is one of the worst-hit countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Coronavirus battle, coupled with the sanctions imposed by the United States has made the country bend its knees. The impact of the parallel health and economic crisis has wrecked the country and endangered human life. To overcome this crisis, it is essential to maintain international cooperation. There have been repeated requests by the country to uplift these sanctions but to no avail.

A pertinent question now arises is, what is the way out of this situation? Recently, a lawsuit has been filed by Iran in International Court of justice against the US for the use of sanctions amid the pandemic. The Article discusses the nature of the US sanctions and how these sanctions have acted as a fuel to the big fire caused in the country due to the pandemic. Economic sanctions are an important foreign policy tool but at present, the position of these sanctions is still not ascertained in international law. For this purpose, it also discusses as to why the US should be held responsible for its actions.


The relationship between Iran and the United States has been hostile for decades. It has loomed since the Islamic revolution and the situation has soared since then. The two countries have a long-drawn history. The US imposed sanctions on Iran for the first time in 1992, when a mob of students took over the American embassy in Iran and took up to 66 diplomats as hostages. The US congress passed the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-proliferation Act 1992 which opposed the transfer of all goods and technology that could contribute to the country’s acquisition of destructive weapons which, eventually led to the blanket ban on export and import of all goods and services to and from Iran. In 1995, President Clinton prohibited all forms of trade/ business activities with Iran. In 1996, the US Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act which penalised American entities and their subsidies for investing in Iran’s petroleum industries.  In 2016, on account of steps taken by Iran to restrict its nuclear activities, sanctions were lifted by the US.

In 2018, the President Trump re-imposed crippling sanctions on Iran as a punishment for its missile strike on US forces in Iraq. The motive behind these sanctions was to exert maximum pressure on the Country over its illegal activities. The US administration prohibited the acquisition or purchase of US dollars, any transactions through Iranian Rial, transactions dealing in various metals and software. It also prohibited the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and transactions related to the issuance of Iranian sovereign debt. A few months later, the administration tried to increase the pressure and thereby imposed some more sanctions, including restrictions on Iran’s oil export and energy sector and insurance and financial services. Sanctions are in the nature of trade embargo, asset freezing and a ban on movement of people from the USA to Iran.


Iran is facing one of the most difficult situations in its history as a consequence of the pandemic. Iran is struggling with the highest mortality rate, with around 2,16,000 people affected and 10,130 deaths (as on June 25, 2020), among the Middle East nations during the pandemic. The effects of the pandemic coupled with those of the sanctions are catastrophic.

The sanctions have crippled the economy of Iran to the extent that the economy crashed due to a huge capital flight in 2018. In 2019, Iran had the lowest rate of economic growth (–9·5%) and the highest rate of inflation (35·7%) recorded in the country for the past 20 years. The tourism sector suffered huge losses. The exports and imports have been largely affected; the prices of essential goods have risen. The economy of Iran was already suffering from the sanctions imposed by the US government when the world was hit by the pandemic and it added to the plight of the government. Iran’s crippling economy, infrastructure and health services severely incapacitated the ability of the government to respond to the consequences of the pandemic in the best way possible. The sanctions amid the increasing cases of COVID-19 has added to the economic and diplomatic isolation of the country.

The citizens of Iran are facing hardships and struggling to survive. It has impaired the ability of Iranian people to secure their right to health and access to medicines. The sanctions imposed have affected the ability of the government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The withdrawal from the Joint comprehensive plan of action added to the plight of the Iranian government. It prohibited one of its major sources of foreign income, the export of oil and other transactions. These sanctions have totally crippled the economy of Iran with no alternatives to regain its power and position.

These sanctions have largely incapacitated the government’s ability to raise funds and buy humanitarian goods, including essential medicines. Despite sanctions exempt humanitarian goods, the US Politicians have encouraged many pharmaceutical companies to end trade with Iran. Human Rights Watch found that current economic sanctions, despite the humanitarian exemptions, are causing unnecessary suffering to Iranian citizens afflicted with a range of deadly diseases. A report released by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finances identified various challenges during the pandemic including reduced tax avenues due to businesses losses, fall in prices of oil and petrochemical, recession, inflation and reduced consumer demands for goods, the deficit in government budgets and declining foreign reserves. The US government has not uplifted these restrictions yet and it has made the situation even deadlier.


The relationship between the use of Economic sanctions and the principles of international law is still open to debate. The term “use of force” has been interpreted differently by different Jurists and philosophers. Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has the power to impose economic sanctions when there is a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or an act of aggression. While the debate on the scope of use of force still continues, in the traditional sense, it is limited to the use of armed attacks. At present, there are no legal grounds to take actions against the other country.

It is important to take an effect-based perspective to read economic sanctions into the meaning of force. The scope of use of force was discussed by the International Court of Justice in the case of Nicaragua v United States. The Court stated that the prohibition of Armed force would apply if the “scale and effects” would have been classified as the effects of an armed attack. The Court also clarified that use of force is not always constituted by an armed attack but did not make any further comments regarding the validity of the sanctions.

The hardship faced by the people due to imposition of sanctions leads to infringement of social, economic and various human right leading to starvation and even death of people. Sanctions constitute a form of coercive diplomacy, sometimes they are used as a part of war effort or as an alternative to war and other times as a prelude to war. Recovery under such heavyweight of sanctions is unimaginable. The case study of sanctions imposed in Iran shows how the effects of sanctions can as be pernicious as that of a war.

Moreover, the use of sanctions is ineffective since they are imposed to disapprove the policies made by the leaders but consequently, they have devastating effects on the citizens rather than the leaders and the politicians. Subsequently, in the process of making the target state extremely impotent, they also impair them to bring about the changes for which the sanctions were imposed. It raises a question as to whether such means are ethical to exert pressure on political groups and leaders who are unstirred by the state of the citizens.

Sanctions also lead to wrongful intervention into the sovereignty of the state. Persuasion is the very essence of international relations. When persuasion amounts to a forced intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state and is made without the consent of the target state and for the purpose of constraining the independent will of that state, permissible persuasion becomes impermissible intervention. Coercion forms the very essence of prohibited intervention. The use of sanctions amidst the pandemic is coercive in nature since Iran is not left with any alternative and it interferes with the economic and the political will of the country. Various UNGA resolution discourages the use of any kind of coercive measures aimed against political independence and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements.

Such aggressive use of sanctions also contradicts with the purpose of sanctions. The purpose of the Charter is to maintain international peace and security. This effect is to be achieved through peaceful means, friendly relations among nations and co-operation in solving international problems. The UN Charter encourages States to settle disputes by peaceful means and should try to seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation etc or other peaceful means of their own choice.

Despite the fact that sanctions tend to contradict various principles of international law, there is no provision in customary international law against the use of sanctions at present.


Sanctions are paradoxical. They have constantly been criticised for being a blunt policy instrument. Economic sanctions rarely accomplish the purpose for which they are used. They are distant from achieving policy objectives and rather lead to a humanitarian disaster. Taking into account the situation in Iran, it can be observed that the effects of the imposition of sanctions can lead to irredeemable damages and therefore, the international community should broaden the scope of the Article 2(4) to include use of economic power within its ambit. The UN Charter is too regressive for modern practices.

To ensure conformity with international law, the Security Council should implement a clear and detailed set of guidelines establishing a method for imposing, monitoring and lifting sanctions. Various checks and balances should be imposed on the use of sanctions. First and foremost, it must be proportional to the act against which it has been imposed. The sanctions should be imposed for a limited amount of time and should be lifted if the purpose is accomplished or that some flexibilities should be given during difficult times like the pandemic. The US government should ease sanctions on Iran for some time. The government should lift ban on export and import of basic goods. Demonstrating compassion during these times may help the Trump administration to achieve the goals that it could not achieve by exerting pressure on the government and would further improve the political relations between the two countries.

Archi Jain is a 3rd year law student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.

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