Economic sanctions are often seen as a more humane alternative to military conflict. But as some observes warn that sanctions on Iran are beginning to restrict the availability of daily necessities, questions have arisen about the justice and proper limits of such measures.

In 2018, the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. That agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was supported by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops, but critics said it was ineffective and strengthened the regime's ability to support terrorist activity abroad. 

Further sanctions have been imposed following an escalating series of events, including the recent shooting down of an American drone. On Monday, as Iran confirmed it had violated the terms of th 2015 nuclear deal and would withdraw from it. The White House responded that it would exert "maximum pressure" on the regime to curb its "nuclear ambitions" and "malign behavior." 

While U.S. sanctions are intended to have "maximum effect" on Iran's regime, Niki Akhavan, Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Catholic University of America, and expert in digital media and politics in the Middle East and Iran, told CNA that they could ultimately violate the "basic rights" of the Iranian people. 

Akhavan warned that there were increasing reports of ordinary citizens, especially the middle class, having difficulty obtaining necessities like food or medicine.

"Everyday life has become more and more difficult," Akhavan said. 

While the sanctions against Iran do not directly include basic staples like food or medicine, she told CNA, their wider impact on the entire economy is creating pressure on ordinary citizens. Iranians who once were able to travel to visit family or to get medical care outside of Iran now can no longer afford to do so.

In September last year, Armenian Catholic Church leaders in Iran made a similar warning that the return of sanctions would harm all Iranians. 

On Monday, as Iran confirmed it had violated the nuclear deal and would withdraw from it, the White House responded that it would exert "maximum pressure" on the regime to curb its "nuclear ambitions" and "malign behavior." 

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Regarding the use of economic sanctions, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that sanctions "seek to correct the behaviour of the government of a country that violates the rules of peaceful and ordered international coexistence or that practises serious forms of oppression with regard to its population."

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas, told CNA that this violation of peace is interpreted by the Church to be a violation of what St. Augustine defined as the "tranquillitas ordinis," or the "tranquility of order." 

Peace should not simply be defined as the absence of war but must include at least some measure of justice. The "promotion of peace" is the necessary context for considering sanctions, Swetland said, and they can only be levied against those who violate peace. 

While noting that the Iranian regime "is in various ways" violating the tranquility of order, Swetland also said that the criteria of a just war had to be applied in determining what response was merited.

In cases where a military conflict would be unjust, nations must seek "non-lethal ways of resolving those conflicts," the monsignor said, while warning that in cases of a "creeping conflict" it is all the more important to arrive at negotiations between both parties. 

On June 18, the U.S. bishops' international justice and peace chairman Archbishop Timothy Broglio called for "sustained dialogue" by the U.S. and world powers with Iran "to de-escalate the current situation." 

Swetland told CNA that sanctions were one possible tool to bring that about, but that the Church teaches that there are proper uses and limits to how they are applied against persons or regimes. 

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In some cases, sanctions might be narrowly-tailored against individual human rights abusers in response to their gravely wrong actions. However, Swetland warned, the more broadly sanctions are applied, such as economic sanctions taken against sectors of a country's economy, the more scrutiny is necessary to determine their justice.

Sanctions must always be used as a path to negotiation, he said, and must be used with "great discernment" to ensure they remain "focused" and "narrow."

"They can't be used indiscriminately" and "must never be used for the direct punishment of an entire population," Swetland said.

"I believe the U.S. has tried to target the sanctions [against Iran]," he said, but noted that while U.S. sanctions had been imposed over the past year in increasing proportion they need to be "continuously evaluated."

"When ordinary people can't get food and medicine, it's gone too far."