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US Sanctions on Iran and Venezuela: Illegal and Destructive

The Trump administration imposed new sanctions on both Iran and on Venezuela this week, which are both aimed at regime change, but in the case of Iran media and other countries are resisting them, while in Venezuela’s case they are not being questioned, explains CEPR’s Mark Weisbrot

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced a new round of economic sanctions against both Venezuela and against Iran. The stated rationale behind the sanctions against each of these countries are somewhat different. In the case of Iran, hypocritical as this may sound, the U.S. is saying that the sanctions are intended to pressure Iran to reduce its alleged interference in other countries in the Middle East, and for it to give up its nuclear energy and ballistic missile programs. In a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Monday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had this to say about the latest round of sanctions against Iran.

MIKE POMPEO: The sting of sanctions will be painful if the regime does not change its course from the unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen, to one that rejoins the League of Nations. These will indeed end up being the strongest sanctions in history when we are complete. The regime has been fighting all over the Middle East for years. After our sanctions come in force it will be battling to keep its economy alive.

SHARMINI PERIES: In the case of Venezuela, sanctions are supposedly being imposed demanding that Venezuela restore democracy. Earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence made his case at the OAS outlining more U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. Let’s listen.

MIKE PENCE: We’ve already imposed strict financial sanctions on more than 50 current and former senior Venezuelan officials. We cut off the so-called Petro from the United States financial system.

SHARMINI PERIES: Pence, though, fails to mention that the financial sanctions that have already been placed against Venezuela since last August, and which prohibit investors from buying and selling Venezuelan bonds, making it impossible for Venezuela to even restructure its debt. What do the sanctions against Venezuela and Iran have in common, and how are they being presented to the public? Joining me now to discuss this is Mark Weisbrot. Mark is director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and is the author of the book “Failed: What Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy.” Thanks for joining us, Mark.

MARK WEISBROT: Thanks for inviting me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Mark, the Trump administration announced new sanctions against both Venezuela and Iran on Monday. First, what effect will these sanctions have on each of these countries?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, it’s different in each case. In the case of Iran it will depend very much on how much other countries go along with the United States, although they’ll have an impact in any case. But it very much depends, because in the case of Iran, the United States government is threatening the European Union, for example, with sanctions against their companies if they actually violate the sanctions that the U.S. wants to impose, reimpose, on Iran.

SHARMINI PERIES: And in the case of Venezuela?

MARK WEISBROT: In the case of Venezuela it’s basically U.S., for the most part. And there you already have a financial embargo which prevents Venezuela from borrowing. And that is very drastic, because without being able to borrow, they can’t roll over their loans, for example. So normally when debt comes due, bonds come due when they mature, government will just roll that over, will borrow again, and then they just have to pay the interest consistently. But in Venezuela they’ve had to pay the principal as well, because they can’t borrow. And they can’t restructure that debt either under the U.S. sanctions, because that involves borrowing.

And they also can’t borrow-. They Lose a lot of other possibilities for credit as well, because financial institutions tend to be cautious, and they don’t want to go against the sanctions. So even the imports of some medicines have been affected by that, although depriving the government of foreign exchange has also contributed to shortages of lifesaving medicines, as well as food. And of course, the U.S. didn’t create the crisis there. It did, recession began in 2014, when oil was still $100 a barrel. But what these sanctions have done is make it nearly impossible for Venezuela to get out of the depression and the hyperinflation that the economy is caught in now, and that is the purpose, I think, of those sanctions. And that’s the other thing the two sets of sanctions now have in common. In both cases the Trump administration has made it pretty much explicit that the purpose of harming these two economies is to get rid of the government in both cases.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, in addition to this, there are certain laws and international laws that are in place to protect countries from having these kinds of sanctions imposed upon them. And clearly in the case of Iran we had the Iran nuclear agreement, which actually lifted sanctions, and so that Iran wasn’t subject to such extreme measures. But what is the legal status of these sanctions both, in both cases, both in Iran and Venezuela?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, they’re both illegal under international law. And in Venezuela, for example, they violate the OAS charter, and they also violate international treaties that the U.S. has signed which prohibit such things as collective punishment. In the Iranian case they violate the UN, the agreement, the JPCOA, which was the agreement that removed the UN sanctions against Iran, the US was a signatory to that. And so they are now reneging on that agreement. So that’s in violation of the law, international law as well. And of course they will also violate the, the WTO rule, as well.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, Mark, what is really interesting about these two cases we are discussing is the way in which it is presented, these sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, by both the media and the administration. Speak to the way in which it is being differently handled.

MARK WEISBROT: Yeah, that’s the thing I find most striking. And it has a number of causes. But if you look at the case of Iran and the Trump administration, you know, going back on the agreement and imposing new sanctions, and being very bellicose, as you saw with this speech from Pompeo, there’s a quite a bit of opposition to that in the media. And in fact, you know, you had an op-ed in the New York Times on Friday by two former security council members from the Obama administration, saying that if Europe doesn’t stand up to this we might as well start referring to them as the 28 colonies instead of the European Union. So there’s this idea that this is wrong, and people should stand up to it.

Whereas The Venezuelan sanctions are just treated as though this is the way the world works, it’s the law of the jungle. If the U.S. wants to overthrow this government, threaten military action, as they’ve done, and call for a military coup within the country, and try to destroy the economy in order to topple the government that that’s OK. I mean, you don’t see anybody, really, very few voices anywhere, that reach a mass audience in this country, or in the Western media that think anything’s wrong with that. It’s a very striking contrast.

SHARMINI PERIES: Mark, you follow what is happening in Latin America in particular for a long time now. And these kinds of gestures have happened before, both to Venezuela and other countries in Latin America. Give us a sense, a brief history of that, that the model that the U.S. is replicating here.

MARK WEISBROT: Well, they’ve been trying to get rid of the left governments. You know, there was in the 21st century, as we’ve talked about here, you know, left governments were elected in countries that had the majority of the population of of Latin America. In Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Nicaragua. And so this was a major change. And from the beginning, which, this started in 1998, the U.S. was involved in many efforts to get rid of these governments. So in that sense the Trump administration is continuous with both the Bush and the Obama administration, but it’s being much more aggressive. In fact, I don’t remember the U.S. ever calling for a military coup openly before the coup happened, not even in Chile in 1973, where they were directly involved in that coup, did they ever say anything like that.

So they’re more extreme, but it is a continuous program of trying to get rid of left governments in the hemisphere, and they did succeed in getting rid of some of them, the weaker ones. The smaller and poor countries in Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay. And they did also, I mean, by other means, I think they contributed to the coming to power of the right-wing governments in Brazil and Argentina.

So that’s been the program, and of course now they want to get rid of Venezuela, which they’ve been trying to do for, you know, at least the past 15-16 years. And the thing is, one of the reasons they’re able to get away with this now, when they couldn’t, say, in 2013 when Obama, who was much more well-liked in the world than Trump is, tried to not recognize the presidential elections in Venezuela when the whole world recognized, except for the United States and the right-wing government of Spain. And they couldn’t get away with it because you had left governments in Brazil and Argentina and these other countries, and they pushed back. And Now you have right-wing governments in these countries and so the U.S. was able to put together a group of allies in Latin America which support its efforts to topple the Venezuelan government, and of course they also get their European allies, who are standing up to them on Iran, but solidly with them toppling the Venezuelan government.

SHARMINI PERIES: Mark, in the case of Iran one can argue that there was a nuclear program there. There may be some real threats that the U.S. perceives in terms of national security issues. But the same doesn’t exist in Venezuela. Can you comment on that?

MARK WEISBROT: Yeah, I think that’s what’s most ironic about the way these two sets of sanctions are viewed and discussed in our media, especially in Western media generally, because in the case of Iran, as you mentioned, the UN-approved sanctions that were lifted in 2016 were, in fact, directed at Iran’s nuclear program and its capability, possibly, possible capability to produce nuclear weapons. And in the case of Venezuela there’s no conceivable security threat at all. You know, of course they use these, they try to say it’s about democracy and human rights, as you mentioned. But first of all, everybody knows Trump doesn’t care about that. And second of all, the U.S. allies in the region, of course, like Colombia and Mexico and Honduras are much, much, much worse on any kind of human rights measure than Venezuela.

So it’s completely false, and yet people, I think, here are very intimidated from saying anything about that because it’s, there’s a kind of McCarthyism where if you even criticize even Trump of all people, even his policy towards Venezuela, you get a lot of heat for that.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. And also we may add to that there’s no greater place where corruption is so paramount than, say, Colombia, a U.S. ally that they don’t comment on. And further, one should also point out that clearly the IAEA and other bodies that are in place to measure the threat of Iran and any possibility of developing a nuclear weapon, these agents are in place to monitor and correct and investigate any complaints about Iran violating the nuclear agreement has clearly come out and said they have no concern at this moment, that they are, in fact, in compliance of the agreement. And yet the U.S. has pulled out of the agreement and asserted these sanctions.

So with that we’ll leave you for now, Mark, and looking forward to having you back. Thank you.

MARK WEISBROT: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.