The Politics of Boycotting Israel while Fighting Sanctions on Iran

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Originally published by Jadaliyya on October 3, 2014.

By: Alex Shams and Ali Abdi

As the bombs rained down on Gaza this summer, we were reminded yet again of the failure of peace talks, negotiations, or dialogue to attain meaningful results for the Palestinian people over the last seven decades of Israeli colonialism. Indeed, global demonstrations throughout July and August showed how widespread calls for the boycott of Israel have become, as activists around the world have come out in support of the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for the boycott of Israel.

Iranians stand in a unique relationship to these events, as their government is one of the strongest supporters of the armed Palestinian resistance to Israeli oppression, claiming to have provided the technological know-how used in Hamas,Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Islamic Jihad, rockets raining down on southern Israeli cities that cause little damage but much anger and panic. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, in July calledfor the arming of resistance forces in the West Bank as well, at least until Israel submitted its rule across historic Palestine to a popular referendum (a long-standing Iranian condition for Middle East peace).

This very support, however, has led to a complicated relationship to the Palestinian cause for Iranians both inside Iran as well as in the four million-strong diaspora. The repression of peaceful dissent in the homeland by the same government that loudly advocates on behalf of Palestinian human rights has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. While the non-violent international movement for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel has gained steam in recent years, a large number of Iranians have reacted with confusion to calls to boycott Israel, particularly as their own country is suffering intensely under international sanctions. How can those of us who stand up and denounce the sanctions imposed by the West on Iran simultaneously advocate on behalf of boycott and sanctions against Israel?

In this piece, we will explore the various streams of thought among Iranians regarding the issues of boycotts and sanctions, focusing on one of the few major moments in recent memory when the issue was at the forefront of global Iranian consciousness. We will argue that Iranian pro-democracy civil society activists are increasingly employing various discursive, visual, and aesthetic tactics to show support for the Palestinian cause while differentiating themselves from the official pro-Palestinian narrative of the state.Subsequently, we will discuss the relationship of the BDS movement against Israel to sanctions on Iran, elucidating through a comparative analysis and reference to the case of the anti-apartheid sanctions on South Africa and Iraq how we understand these boycotts in relation to each other.

Although supporting sanctions on Israel and opposing them on Iran might at first glance appear to be contradictory positions, through reference to the case of South Africa we will analyze the broader geopolitical issues that bring these two positions into sync. While Iran’s geopolitical isolation offers it relative impunity in its repression of Iranian civil society movements for greater civil liberties, it is exactly the opposite condition — Israel’s embeddedness and strong links to Western powers — that facilitates the lack of justice and accountability for the Palestinian people living under the apartheid system. As a result of these specific geopolitical circumstances, we advocate for the application of the civil society-led boycott of Israel as well as the push to lift the sanctions regime on Iran as the most efficacious means to promote freedom and social justice in each respective context.

[“Free Palestine, Free Mousavi.” From a summer 2014 protest in New York.]

“Free Palestine, Free Mousavi”

Over the last two months, numerous protests have taken place across Iran in solidarity with the people of Palestine as Israel launched an assault on Gaza that killed more than 2,000 people and left more than 100,000 homeless. “Qods (Jerusalem) Day” brought marches to the streets in at least 700 cities and towns on Friday, July 25, with an extremely diverse array of political views represented in what was technically a regime-backed day of protest. The protests, as well as the wider debates they have contributed to in the Persian-language political world, offer a sense of the complexities that surround the issue of Palestine for Iranians.

The official narrative of the Islamic Republic is one of uncompromising military support for the Palestinian cause, and while this policy retains widespread popular support, Iranians maintain a much wider diversity of positions that are often integrally related to their relationship to their own government. In general, three main positions can be discerned: Pro-Regime, Pro-Palestine; Anti-Regime, Anti-Palestine; and Pro-Democracy, Pro-Palestine. By using the term “regime” here, we do not mean to dismiss the fact that the present Iranian government came to power through a popular revolution and retains a strong degree of legitimacy. Instead, we mean to highlight that these groups are committed to the political regime as it stands today, namely the system of Islamic Republicanism that essentially functions as a limited democracy under clerical tutelage.

The terms “anti-regime” and “pro-democracy” meanwhile, encompass a wide array of groups and individuals that oppose the current “Islamic” political regime and generally demand broad, wide-ranging reforms to further strengthen political and social freedoms. These groups support the concept of the Iranian state itself, but their demands for sweeping constitutional changes put them in opposition to defenders of the political regime as it stands. The difference between anti-regime and pro-democracy positions, we posit, lies in the degrees and strategies invoked — thus while anti-regime activists often call for the dismantling of the state through sanctions or military force if necessary, pro-democracy activists (sometimes called “reformists” in the Western media) have tended to be involved in electoral politics and protest movements that sought to dramatically transform the system from the inside.

The broadly defined categories we present here do not reflect the wide range of positions in Iran and among the diaspora, and are admittedly simplified representations of reality. They do, however, serve as a gateway for providing a better understanding of the many complex and interconnected Iranian political currents and the ways in which they situate themselves in relation to the Palestinian cause.

Qods Day can be seen as one of the most salient examples of the hegemony of Islamic Republican Pro-Palestinian sentiment in the Iranian symbolic universe. After the 1979 victory against the Shah and amid the institutionalization of the new revolutionary order, Ayatollah Khomeini notably invited PLO head Yasser Arafat to Tehran and handed him over the keys to the Israeli embassy, while major roads across the nation were renamed “Qods,” “Palestine,” or any number of other terms related to the struggle (particularly from an Islamic lens). Qods Day, meanwhile, sought to integrate Palestine into the discourse of an unending revolution by providing a yearly date for mobilization. The holiday became increasingly popular throughout the region over the following decades, and has been observed on the last Friday of Ramadan in at least a dozen countries.

Pro-regime political groups who strive at monopolizing public support for Palestine in Iran often claim to be the only genuine supporters of the cause, questioning the authenticity of pro-reform intellectuals’ and activists’ support for Palestine, or attacking those who remain silent. The conservative Javan newspaper, for example, on July 22nd attacked reformist newspapers for their silence on Gaza on the front page. Although the charge was not particularly valid given that reformist papers have indeed covered the carnage in Gaza, the title of Javan newspaper (“No to Gaza! No to Lebanon! Only we ourselves!”) references a slogan once heard in the streets of Iran. The attack refers to an incident in 2009, when a large number of protesters associated with the pro-democracy Green Movement chanted “No to Gaza! No to Lebanon! My life is for Iran!” By using this slogan, Javan newspaper implied not only that the reformist newspapers do not care about Palestine, but also that they are supporters of “sedition” (a term initially used by pro-regime Iranian intellectuals to refer to the Green Movement) against the Iranian government and its allies, thereby linking disinterest in the Palestinian cause to oppositional politics within Iran. Within this worldview, the world is divided into two camps: supporters of the Islamic Republic and Palestine versus supporters of Israel, the U.S., and the Green Movement. The slogan itself brings us to the next intellectual position on Palestine, which indeed also operates within this binary worldview: anti-regime, anti-Palestine.

The anti-regime, anti-Palestine position works within the same intellectual universe of neoconservatism and civilizational difference that the Iranian state’s conservative supporters uphold, but approaches the topic from the opposite side. One of the best manifestations of this position is illustrated in NimaRashedan’sarticle on Iranwire, entitled, “Israel and its Enemies.” Rashedan, a political analyst now living in exile, asks: “Who are the enemies of Israel?” and proceeds by listing off the Islamic Republic, Syria, and Saddam Hussein, and then comparing these with Israel’s “friends”: Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Britain, among others. “We only need to measure the level of freedom in the two camps to vividly understand how barbarity and civilization are opposed to each other,” he adds. Advocates of this position — which judges the Palestinian cause by examining state actors who support their cause, especially the Iranian government — employ similar arguments to Zionists in the United States and Western Europe, and indeed many of them are located in diaspora but are heard and read through satellite television or the internet.

These intellectuals either defend Israel, or else hide under the mask of objectivity or neutrality in order to express support for the Zionist state. Unsurprisingly, the slogan “No to Gaza! No to Lebanon! My life is for Iran” was created and spread by members of this camp in the 2009 Green Movement. For them, the Green Movement should be aligned with Israel and the United States, and to this end certain opposition groups — particularly those abroad — have asked foreign powers to funnel money to unnamed opposition groups in the country in their struggle to install a Western-backed government in Iran. This same subset of the Iranian opposition — as well as their extremely few allies within the Green Movement inside of Iran — have most vocally come out in support of sanctions on Iran as well. This group, together with conservative supporters of the Islamic Republic, believe that Green Movement has nothing to do with Palestine and must be either disinterested or opposed to the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom.

But the slogan, as well as its popularity in Iran, needs to be understood first and foremost within the context of an Iranian internal political discourse wherein the Palestinian cause is constantly appropriated in order to strengthen the legitimacy of a repressive political regime.Although there are certainly many Iranians – particularly those who were aligned with the pre-1979 regime – who are willing to support US imperialism and Zionism in the hope that both forces will help them topple the regime, the sheer ubiquity of pro-Palestinian discourse in official media, posters, slogans, etc has made the cause indelibly associated with the regime itself for most ordinary Iranians. Across Iran – in universities, on the street, at work – the representatives of the same authorities that insistently champion the human rights of Palestinians on every major public occasion can be found beating up student protesters or harassing women for not covering enough hair. In this context, it is hardly surprising that an appeal to people’s resentment toward the government through an anti-Palestinian and anti-Lebanese (Hezbollah, really) slogan could be successful. We suspect, however, that the popularity of this slogan indexes resentment towards the perceived hypocrisy of Iranian government discourse more than anti-Palestinian attitudes per se.

As is clear from the examples given above, 2014 is not the first that time Qods Day has become a site for contestation over the meaning of Palestine in Iranian political discourse. In opposition to those slogans expressed above, many supporters of the former presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi — who charged that the 2009 presidential elections were fraudulent and was subsequently put under house arrest as millions rallied in the street — used the occasion to draw parallels between their struggle for greater freedom in Iran and the struggle of Palestinians against Israeli oppression, chanting “Whether Tehran or Gaza, Stop Killing People” or “Palestine! Palestine! Our situation is similar to yours!” For these activists, the binary created by both pro- and anti-regime intellectuals regarding the possibility of grassroots Iranian-Palestinian solidarity despite the regime’s monopolization of pro-Palestinian discourse was a false one, and could be deconstructed from within through the very act of expressing one’s solidarity with Palestinians by highlighting shared oppression. Likewise, Mousavi’s own pro-Palestinian position can hardly be put into doubt. “One who pursues freedom, independence, and resistance against oppression would find herself in solidarity with Palestinians,” he said in a meeting held before the elections, only one of many times in which he has pledged to continue support for the Palestinian cause.

In fact, the pro-democracy, pro-Palestine tent encompasses a large number of Iranian intellectuals both inside and out of Iran, a fact that has become increasingly clear in light of the assault on Gaza. A significant number of Iranian intellectuals, women’s rights activists, and artists living inside Iran — many of whom have been previously jailed by the regime and are supporters of the Green Movement — issued a strong statement denouncing the Israeli occupation and crimes during the assault, calling the Palestinian struggle “inspiring and helpful for people around the world against despotism.


[On the left, we see a poster by Golrokh Nafisi for the four children killed on the beach. Golrokh was one of the prominent artists of Green Movement. Notice the green wristband worn by the woman on the right. The wristband signals support for the Green Movement, and the wristband has been used as evidence by police of affiliation with the movement during crackdowns. Photo by Sheyda Zamani/Borna News]

Another protest, meanwhile, was organized by the oppositional group Mothers of Peace on July 23rd in front of the UN Headquarters in Tehran. Among the participants were pro-Green Movement individuals, JafarPanahi (a director previously sentenced to six years in prison but then released because of international pressure), Isa Saharkhiz (a journalist recently released from jail after serving more than five years), and ParvinFahimi (mother of SohrabArabi, who was killed on June 15, 2009 in opposition protests), among others.

Eight political prisoners, most of whom have been jailed after the 2009 elections, also wrote an open letter to Ban-Ki-Moon in which they condemned Israel’s crimes. “Iranian civil society both before and after the 1979 revolution has always been on the side of Palestinians — despite the many criticisms against Islamic Republic of Iran’s policies in the region and towards Palestine,” they said. “We hope our voices can go beyond the walls of hatred, religious fanaticism, racism, . . . and reach you. We are ourselves the victims of human rights violations,” they added.

On Qods Day itself, different groups of pro-democracy Iranians also tried to discursively and visually differentiate themselves from the official crowd. For instance, a group of youths, wrote the names of 180 Palestinian children killed in the offensive on white balloons and marched beside others while wearing white and green scarves to distinguish themselves from the crowd. This year marks the first time that such a wide array of progressive civil society activists have spoken out on behalf of Palestinians, presenting a direct epistemological challenge to the regime’s monopolization of the Palestinian cause.

[Image by Amin Khosroshahi]

Makhmalbaf in Jerusalem

It is not the first time, however, that all of these positions have found themselves in open discursive conflict on the issue of Palestine. As the above examples make clear, Palestine is for many a symbolic cause used to position oneself in relation to the regime. According to the binary logic of both the pro-regime, pro-Palestine and pro-democracy, anti-Palestine positions, the distance or closeness of the speaker to the cause signals their opinion regarding the Islamic Republic. Open debates about Palestine as Palestine, meanwhile, have been less common, in part because neither side offers the other a platform within their respective medias. A 2013 BDS campaign, however, provided one of the first major public discussions that engaged all three positions stated above, and brought them into open conflict.

In July of last year, a number of Iranian activists living abroad (including the authors of this piece) launched a campaign targeting Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf for his decision to take part in film festival funded by the Israeli government in Jerusalem. Through the campaign, we hoped to buoy support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement among Iranians by highlighting the necessity of promoting the cultural boycott of Israel.

We managed to get more than 150 signatures from prominent Iranian scholars and activists during the campaign, and the letter we wrote addressing Makhmalbaf sparked a major debate in the global Persian-language media that eventually pushed the director himself to respond. The outpouring of responses we got from Iranians around the world spanned the political spectrum. Makhmalbaf himself came out to say that because he opposed war on Iran, he was proud of his visit and his use of culture as a means of exchange with the Israeli people. Other responses, meanwhile, ranged from praise for Makhmalbaf and a rejection of boycott, to a callfor a boycott of Iran instead, and even a plea with Israel to support pro-democracy movements in Iran.

Within Iran itself, meanwhile, officials came out in support of the letter but went further, with the then-president of the Iranian Cinema Organization Javad Shamaghdari even calling for the removal of all of Makhmalbaf’s works from the Iranian Cinema Museum. He then went on to attack the Baha’i religion, which was the focus of Makhmalbaf’s film at the festival. This kind of official “support” made our work even more difficult, as our call for the boycott of Israel was reframed as an alliance between us and government officials in order to suppress the free exchange of ideas. Particularly given that many of the initiators of the campaign as well as the signatories were exiles of that self-same government, this framing — and the seeming impossibility of a stance that demanded both Palestinian and Iranian freedom that it implied — came as quite a shock.

Iranians both in Iran and abroad began to pose a question that we have now heard repeated many times since: how can one support the boycott of Israel while simultaneously opposing sanctions on Iran?

[Green Movement demonstrators chant: “Palestine, Palestine, we are like you!” and “People! Why are you silent? Iran has become Palestine!” during a protest in Tehran on Qods Day, 2009]

The West and the Rest

What appears at first to be a contradiction — supporting sanctions on Israel and opposing them on Iran — is anything but. Both BDS and opposition to sanctions on Iran emerge as part of grassroots, civil society movements to transcend diplomatic and political intransigence and to demand justice and lasting political solutions. They also both emerge out of a critique of US imperialism in the region, and demands for sovereignty and self-determination for both Palestinians and Iranians.

Tellingly, Israel has also been at the forefront of the push for sanctions on Iran, lobbying US and world opinion to isolate Iran and working directly against the interests of those Iranian pro-democracy forces. While Israel calls for “freedom” and “regime change” in Iran, they maintain their bloody occupation of Palestinians and a blockade on Gaza that has led to tremendous human suffering. Israel is lobbying for the collective punishment of both nations under the justification that this punishment will somehow benefit the very people that are being punished in Iran and Palestine. While Israel oppresses Palestinians with US support, it is the US that has imposed sanctions on Iran with Israeli backing. The connections between Iranians and Palestinians are not only in their shared struggle for freedom, but crucially also in the sources of their oppression.

First and foremost, our support for the boycott of Israel and our opposition to the sanctioning of Iran emerges out of the calls of activists and leaders on the ground who have stated clearly in a unified voice how independent civil society in both has deemed it most effective to rectify outstanding human rights abuses.

Palestinian civil society beginning in 2004/2005 has come together around the callfor the boycott of Israel. A large number of organizations active in Palestine have stressed in no uncertain terms that after decades of trying other tactics, Israel has shown itself to be unwilling to be held accountable. At the same time, due to an international geopolitical landscape that has meant an historically firm alliance between Israel and the main global powerbrokers — the US, the UK, and a handful of other Western European states — the mechanisms that exist in order to support human rights and hold violators accountable have been completely unable to function.

After decades of ethnic cleansing, occupation, and apartheid, the outlook for Israel has never appeared better. For decades, Israel has used “dialogue” and “peace negotiations” as a cover to carry out wide-scale confiscation of Palestinian land and the construction of permanent, Jewish-only settlements atop them. These moves are recognized as illegal internationally, even by Israel’s closest allies and at times even by Israel’s court system, and yet today even the pretense of accountability seems laughable.

Palestinians have engaged in violent and nonviolent struggle for decades in an effort to secure their rights, resisting — as they are entitled to under international law — a strategy to displace them from their lands that began in 1948, with the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes on the basis of their ethnicity, and continues into the present. It is from this context that the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions emerged.

Meanwhile, the struggle of Iranians for democracy and justice is not limited to the post-2009 election protests. While protesters managed to overthrow the repressive U.S.-backed Shah in 1979, many of the most basic goals of the revolution — freedom and social equality — remain unfulfilled, despite many advances (and setbacks). Even while the Iranian government retains a strong degree of legitimacy among many sectors of the population, it’s repression of a wide range of dissent — particularly but not limited to those who disagree with its vision of an Islamic polity under clerical tutelage — means that efforts to push for greater democratization of society and politics continue. The latest manifestation of such efforts to promote greater social and political freedom unravelled in 2009 amid massive government repression. But the struggle continued, and the result of the 2013 elections, although not completely free and fair, demonstrated a deep desire for change and widespread frustration with the status quo.

In fact, Iranians currently have to fight on two fronts: domestic oppression and foreign sanctions. In 2013, more than 50 political prisoners in Iran wrote a letter directly to US President Obama calling for the lifting of sanctions, while women’s rights activists have repeatedly called objected sanctions and warmongering. As Palestinian civil society as well as significant numbers of Israelis have lined up behind the calls for the boycott of Israel, Iranian civil society has stood united in its demands for the lifting of sanctions.

[A cartoon by prominent opposition cartoonist Mana Neyestani shows the boots of a figure labeled as “European Union” squashing a man with a green wristband (signifying the Green Movement, and pro-reform opposition more broadly). The man says: “Spit on your help!”]

The Cases of South Africa and Iraq

Claims of a parallel between BDS on Israel and sanctions on Iran also obscure the differentially-situated histories of Iran and Israel and their relationship to the contemporary global order. Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions are tactics, not matters of ideology, and BDS is a strategy that must be wielded where the circumstances warrant it due to specific historical, social, and political contexts. The Iranian and Israeli governments depend upon very specific histories and relationships in order to carry out their respective brutalities with impunity, and it is impossible to imagine change in either without paying attention to and targeting the sources of that impunity.

Israel has managed to maintain a brutal military occupation over the West Bank and Gaza for the last 47 years built upon the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 as a direct result of its complete integration into the Western system and its close alliance and ties with the United States and European powers. It is exactly the opposite condition — near complete isolation from this system, as well as systematic US aggression over the last 30 years — that has offered the Iranian government impunity in its crimes against the Iranian people.

An important argument in the Iranian case is that sanctions have an extremely poor track record in effecting domestic change in favor of human rights. From Cuba to Iraq to Gaza, we see that sanctions regimes have impoverished local populations without ever leading to any kind of meaningful improvement. There is, however, one major case where international sanctions were effective in creating tremendous change on the ground: South Africa. But the difference between South Africa and the majority of other cases of international sanctions in modern history is that South Africa was one of the only countries that was dependent on the West for its economic strength. South Africa was deeply embedded in the Western capitalist system even into the late 1980s, and its strongest trading partners were the United States, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. As a result, Western sanctions on South Africa were extremely effective in garnering change in the country.

It is important to note here that when activists discuss sanctions as a tool, they do not intend to actually destroy the economy of the country they are speaking of, whether it be South Africa or Israel. Sanctions, and calls for sanctions, are generally only somewhat effective economically. Especially in situations like South Africa or Israel, where sanctions were never and will probably never be implemented in full, sanctions are as much a social tool as an economic one. The point is to show countries whose elites are dependent upon their good relationship with the West for legitimacy and credibility that “the democratic world” will no longer tolerate their crimes.

Most Israeli Jews, similar to white South Africans before them, consider themselves part and parcel of the Western democratic world, and use their acceptance by that world to obscure their histories of settler-colonialism and ongoing apartheid regimes. Their continued acceptance by that world signals to them that these crimes are perfectly legitimate enterprises, and allows them to dismiss calls for change as radical or idealistic. BDS is as much about enacting a monetary cost on economies of apartheid and occupation as it is about alerting public opinion within Israel that these crimes are intolerable.

Similar to South Africa, Israel is dependent on Western economic relations as well as direct US aid to the tune of $3 billion a year. Sanctions on Israel, similar to sanctions on South Africa, entail the end of support to a wealthy country where an ethnic minority maintains effective control over the lives of a large indigenous majority, and where the minority experiences conditions of democracy and self-rule denied to the majority.

Iran, however, shares almost nothing in common with the positions of Israel and South Africa vis-à-vis the West. Firstly, Iran is not a settler-colonial society where a primarily Western-oriented ethnic elite maintains control over the lives of a native population. Additionally, not only do a majority of Iranian elites not care about how they are seen or thought about in the United States, economically Iran has a relatively weak relationship with the US and the West more broadly. Iran is relatively disconnected from the US and European markets, and it maintains a substantial degree of self-sufficiency as well as strong trading relations with China, Russia, and nearby states. Since the 1990s, trade relations with the West have expanded, and the economy has become increasingly integrated into the global system. It is not, however, completely dependent on these ties to the global system.

As a result, the sanctioning of Iran has lead, and will continue to lead, to a great deal of economic decline and suffering. But this suffering has most strongly hit the most marginalized sectors of Iranian society — the working classes and the urban poor — while leaving more privileged sectors, especially those with military or state ties, largely unhurt. As the economy generally contracts under the sanctions regime, those sectors and companies which are under the control of the state and the military are still cushioned from their effects. In a situation that in many ways resembles the results of the eight-year Israeli blockade on Gaza, these sanctions — supposedly meant to target the government — end up targeting those Iranians without the proper connections to the government. Sanctions not only hurt Iranian civilians more than anyone else and increase their dependency on the state; they also strengthen the central government and its hold on the economy.

The sanctions on Iran can probably be best compared to the sanctions regimeimposed upon Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s. The global sanctions on Iraq impoverished the vast majority of the population, helping reduce average income per capita in 1995 to one-eighth of its 1989 level, and left around 60 percent of the population dependent on food rations by 2000. More than 500,000 Iraqi children are estimated to have died through the combined effects of sanctions on the health and education systems, which were crippled by the severe isolation they faced. (US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said the deaths were “worth it” in 1996).

Although it had previously maintained strong economic links with the Soviet Union and military links with the West, by the beginning of the sanctions regime in 1990 Iraq’s economy was relatively isolated. This isolation — which the sanctions regime then reinforced and deepened — helped the Baathist regime consolidate power and achieve a degree of control over the entire economic and social structure through control of limited resources that it could never have previously dreamed of. Increasingly dismal economic, social, and health indicators impoverished the middle class and isolated the few voices of dissent in Iraqi society, helping to collapse civil society and force existing movements to focus on fulfilling their daily needs instead of promoting meaningful political and social change. In Iran today, there is the very real possibility that the continuation or deepening of the US sanctions regime could have a similar effect.

letter addressed by political prisoners to Obama in mid-2013, after the election of president Rouhani, said it best: “The sanctions have now turned into a collective punishment imposed on the Iranian people as a whole, not the government only … Some people might believe that sanctions will promote democratization in Iran. We disagree with such a view. We think democracy is the desired end of indigenous developments. But sanctions and imposing hardship on the people and putting pressure on a new government that is moving, within the limits of possibility offered by the larger political system in Iran, in the direction of strengthening democratic trends is not the right course of action. The outcome of such a policy will, once again, be aiding extremism in indirect ways and weakening the rekindled democratic movement in Iran.”

As the letter reminds us, US sanctions on Iran are in effect war by other means. Our opposition to sanctions on Iran are thus informed not only by our opposition to their effects, but also our opposition to the understandings of United States power and hegemony in the region that they rely on. Democratic reform and justice in Iran will not come through the barrel of a US gun; they will come through local civil society movements for freedom and democratization.

BDS against Israel works within this same logic, opposing US imperialism in the region as manifested through the $3 billion in aid sent to Israel on a yearly basis and instead heeding the calls of Palestinian civil society for a grassroots approach to achieving justice and equality in the Holy Land for all, Israelis and Palestinians alike. It is the same US imperialism at work in Israel and in the sanctioning of Iran, and it is the same response — grassroots movements for freedom — that herald the answer.

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