The US Sanctions Regime and Human Rights in Iran

The US Sanctions Regime and Human Rights in Iran

By Elizabeth Frazier

The Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, reimposing a sanctions regime on Iran in the months that followed.[1] In contrast to economic sanctions authorized by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, unilateral sanctions are implemented by a single state or group of states against another state or individuals within a targeted state.[2] Although many Western states, including the United States, view unilateral sanctions as a valuable and legitimate tool of foreign policy, the UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures has noted that the dominant position in the international community views sanctions outside of the UN framework as unlawful.[3]

While recognizing the debate on the legality of unilateral sanctions, it is still evident that US sanctions adversely affect the human rights situation in Iran. The recent sanctions regime applies to some Iranian financial institutions that had previously been used to facilitate the import of medical goods, posing “a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines.”[4] Although the US government has allowed for humanitarian exceptions within the sanctions regime, whether any such exception exists in practice is questionable.[5] Statements made by US officials seem to indicate that the goal of the sanctions regime is to cripple the Iranian economy indiscriminately.[6]

Regardless of any direct responsibility attributable to the US, “the use of economic sanctions for political purposes violates human rights and the norms of international behavior.”[7] The Iranian government continually relies on the existence of the unilateral sanctions as an excuse for the failure to comply with international human rights obligations[8] and the post-JCPOA sanctions regime arguably assigns credibility to such excuses.


[1] Human Rights Watch, “Maximum Pressure” US Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health 1 (2019).

[2] Idriss Jazairy, Unilateral Economic Sanctions, International Law, and Human Rights, 33 Ethics & Int’l Aff. 291, 292 (2019).

[3] Id., at 293.

[4] Human Rights Watch, supra note 1.

[5] See Iran: Sanctions Threatening Health, Human Rights Watch (Oct. 29, 2019, 12:00 AM),; Jazairy, supra note 2.

[6] See Mike Pompeo, U.S. Sec’y of State, After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy, Address at the Heritage Foundation (May 21, 2019) (transcript available at; CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews), Twitter (Feb. 14, 2019, 2:00 AM),

[7] US Sanctions Violate Human Rights and International Code of Conduct, UN Expert Says, United Nations Office of the High Comm’r for Human Rights (May 6, 2019),

[8] E.g. U.N. Human Rights Council, National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 5 of the Annex to the Human Rights Council 16/21: Islamic Republic of Iran, ¶ 94–99, U.N. Doc. A/Human Rights Council/WG.6/34/IRN/1 (Aug. 28, 2019).