Archbishop Desmond Tutu was laid to rest on Jan 1. He was truly instrumental in unifying much of the world behind a campaign of sanctions, boycotts, and divestment aimed to overturn the system of apartheid that institutionalised discrimination, disenfranchisement, and human rights abuses against non-white South Africans. That system was so transparently vile that it now seems strange to think that anyone needed to be convinced to work toward dismantling it, but unfortunately Tutu’s role as a global advocate for these measures was entirely necessary. Fortunately, it was also entirely successful.
That is to say, Tutu’s support for international sanctions was effective in convincing overcautious Western leaders of the need to take action at that time, in retaliation against that particular government. But there were broader lessons Western lawmakers could have learned from his interventions. Some did so; others did not. As such, the overarching debate about the effectiveness and morality of economic sanctions is still raging today. The full extent of Tutu’s legacy thus has yet to be determined, and it is unfortunate that his voice will now be absent from discussions over how to deal with the human rights abuses and other malign acts still being perpetrated all around the world.
Bishop Tutu left us just as the debate over sanctions was poised to flare back up in the context of Western policy discussions about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since last year, the seven parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have been engaged in negotiations to restore that agreement. But those talks faced a five-month gap following the “election” of Iran’s ultra-hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, and it soon became clear that Iran would not be negotiating in good faith. The Raisi administration continues to demand that the US lift all sanctions immediately, while offering nothing in return. It is within the realm of reason that the Vienna negotiations will collapse if Tehran does not sharply change course.
On the other hand, critics of Western foreign policy are sincerely concerned that a desperate fixation on salvaging the agreement might lead the United States, Britain, France, and Germany to offer new concessions in hopes of Iran reciprocating after the fact. Although the four Western signatories have attempted to strike an assertive tone, noting at times that “all options are on the table” should diplomacy fail, there is ample reason to suspect they will back down from that assertiveness. Conciliation has largely defined their approach to the issue since the beginning, and Iranian opposition movement, most notably the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has correctly described the West approach toward Tehran as “appeasement.”
NCRI’s President-elect Maryam Rajavi reiterated in her a New Year’s address that, “Freeing the Middle East and the world from the dangers of the Iranian regime’s nuclear programme, its abject ignorance and regressive policies, its crimes, and the thuggery of its proxies, will come by supporting the rights of the Iranian people to rise and resist, and not by appeasement.”
In the mid 1980s there was a major debate about the effectiveness of sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The first public speech I ever made was in my student union opposing apartheid.
Despite opposition at the time, thanks to the steadfastness of figures like Desmond Tutu sanctions were imposed and they achieved their objective.
There is no reason to believe that the situation would be any different with Iran. Indeed, in 2010, Archbishop Tutu actually issued a statement of support for the Iranian Resistance. So it isn’t stretching credibility to suggest that Tutu himself believed that transformative change was possible in Iran. In part, his statement was motivated by the nationwide protests during the previous year. And since the end of 2017, there have been two nationwide uprisings in Iran, plus countless other popular protests that have kept the message of regime change to the fore.
Since June when Raisi was appointed president there have been further spikes in protests. His appointment seemed like a contemptuous reward for prior human rights abuses, including leading roles in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, some 90 percent of whom were pro-democracy activists of the opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK), and the systematic torture of thousands more in 2019.
Without hesitation a regime capable of such atrocities should easily be recognised as something just as vile and just as deserving of comprehensive international pressure as South Africa’s apartheid system. Yet, in recent years, the international community has been dragging its feet even more than it did in the 1980s when Archbishop Tutu helped to prove that sanctions can truly change the world.
This excessive Western wariness must come to an end. There was no justification for it during the apartheid era and there is no justification for it now. When it is absolutely clear that there is a right and a wrong course of action, there is no place for ambiguity. All good people must act in defence of freedom and human dignity, and have faith that no evil system can endure for long when the world has unity of purpose.