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Boycotts vs. Sanctions: An Ethical Comparison



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On May 8, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump officially announced that government’s withdrawal from The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal or Iran deal. He also signed a Presidential Memorandum ordering the reinstatement of sanctions on Iran at the same event (“Remarks by President Trump on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” 2018). This essay argues that such sanctions are illegal and immoral. At the same time, I argue on behalf of certain boycotts against Israel as a tactic to pressure that country’s government to change its behavior toward the Palestinians. At first blush, these two stances might appear to be contradictory. Nonetheless, I contend here that these views can ethically coexist. Although the fact that I am Iranian was surely important in my choice of cases for study, I believe the analysis I offer is applicable to other sanction and boycott initiatives.

As with any argument, context matters. Although both sanctions and boycotts use political, economic, cultural and other devices to achieve their goals, the consequences of those actions in the present examples, differ dramatically. In fact, the most vulnerable groups within the Iranian population are bearing a disproportionate share of the costs of United States sanctions. An illuminating example is the unavailability of medicines necessary for patients suffering from severe diseases, such as certain cancers. Although these treatments are formally exempt from the sanctions, in reality, pharmaceutical companies prefer to avoid any transactions with Iran, rather than risk the imposition of possible penalties. Moreover, even when a company is willing to sell medicines to Iran, there is no financial channel for companies within the country to pay for them, since the nation’s banking system is under sanction as well (Borger and Kamali Dehghan, 2018; Qiblawi, Pleitgen, and Otto, 2019).

In contrast, the boycotts against Israel have targeted the economic elite of that nation, i.e. its large business owners. The boycotts do not affect the health and safety of that group’s members. Instead, they are aimed at limiting the financial resources that can be directed toward military weapons construction and purchases. Perhaps more importantly, boycotts also question the legitimacy of such businesses. Similarly, cultural boycotts, such as musicians refusing to perform in Israel, merely limit middle class citizens’ ability to access some entertainment options. Such efforts certainly do not endanger the lives of Israelis. A common criticism of cultural boycotts is that they unduly close the doors of communication while any movement toward peace can only occur through dialogue. Although I agree with this contention, those who usually use this argument, such as the British band Radiohead (Beaumont-Thomas, 2017), for example, rarely use the opportunity such creates to engage in a dialogue with their Israeli audience.

Another distinction between sanctions and boycotts is the difference in power dynamics they evidence. The boycott is a political tool for groups of individuals to press powerful entities to adopt alternate agendas. A famous example of one such initiative was the 1965-1970 Delano, California grape boycott during which Filipino and Latino grape workers successfully pressured Delano-area table and wine grape growers to sign union contracts that included better pay and benefits (Kim, 2017). Similarly, boycotts of Israel confront the fact that its government is supported economically and militarily by the most powerful government in the world. In contrast, sanctions are usually imposed against countries lower on the power hierarchy. Otherwise, in truth, their implementation would be quite costly to the businesses and governments of the nations imposing them and therefore, quite impractical. In the case of sanctions against Iran, the United States, is acting against a government that is at best a regional player. 

This difference in power matters as it mediates the morality of boycotts and sanctions. In my view, the morality of an act depends in part on how much the unwanted consequences of a specific action are avoidable. In other words, if one can achieve a goal without causing pain and suffering to others, but instead chooses an approach that causes affliction, that step is immoral, even before discussing the morality of the goal it was undertaken to serve.  This fact suggests that the sanction or boycott decisions of governments that possess disproportionate power should always be scrutinized closely on moral grounds.

Both of my previous arguments are contextual, although this fact does not diminish their significance. However, the distinction between boycotts and sanctions is more fundamental. Those individuals and groups that choose to boycott Israel are exercising their right to choose who benefits from their financial, cultural or other interactions. Even if they have erred in taking their course, as long as they are not forcing others to adopt their view or endangering anyone, they are free to take such actions. On the other hand, sanctions, by definition, limit the freedom to choose not only of those targeted, but also of those that might otherwise have wished to continue to support them. For instance, when the United States announced sanctions against Iran, it also suggested that it would punish other individuals and countries that desired to continue to interact with Iran in ways it had elected to bar.

If we are collectively to realize a more democratic and lawful international politics, as I personally hope we will attain, we need to ask ourselves what authority legitimates the United States action to limit others’ freedom to choose whether they wish to interact with Iran. Although the United Nations (UN) is far from a perfect democratic assembly, it is important to note that the recent imposition of sanctions on Iran by the United States has not been approved by that body. Meanwhile, and similarly, the UN’s international court of justice has reprimanded the U.S. for its unilateral decision to sanction Iran (Kamali Dehghan and Borger, 2018).


Beaumont-Thomas, B. (2017, July 12). "Radiohead’s Thom Yorke responds as Ken Loach criticizes Israel gig." The Guardian. Retrieved from

Borger, J., and Kamali Dehghan, S. (2018, November 2). "US rebuffs Europeans over ensuring Iran sanctions exempt food and medicine." The Guardian. Retrieved from

Kamali Dehghan, S., and Borger, J. (2018, October 3). "International court of justice orders US to lift new Iran sanctions." The Guardian. Retrieved from

Kim, I. (2017, March 7). The 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike and Boycott. Retrieved April 5, 2019, from UFW website:

Qiblawi, T., Pleitgen, F., and Otto, C. (2019, February 22). I"ranians are paying for US sanctions with their health." Retrieved April 17, 2019, from CNN website:

Remarks by President Trump on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. (2018, May 8). Retrieved April 17, 2019, from The White House website:

Reza Fateminasab

Reza Fateminasab is a PhD student in the Architecture and Design Research program in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Tehran and his Bachelor’s degree from Tehran University of Art, both in architecture. His current research focuses on the design process and implementation of digital tools within it. He enthusiastically follows the arts and politics.

Publication Date

April 25, 2019