Sanctions are used as a means to force compliance. There is no debate about that. Where it gets a bit foggy is in the perception of this weapon. It is viewed by some as an alternative to war, as a peaceful means to achieve the same ends as a physical 'shooting' war. This is incorrect. In fact, it can be argued that it is a much more destructive and inhuman type of war. It starves the civilians by pushing them into poverty. It hampers the medical treatment of civilians, leading to deaths that could have been prevented had it not been for the sanctions. It leads to civilians having to do things they would rarely consider under normal circumstances and that can destabilize the country for year or even decades, rising up and overthrowing their government.
The protests in Iran in December 2017 were the result of corruption and poor economic conditions left over from the 30+ years of sanctions, mixed with the opportunity to trade internationally under the JCPOA . It was a natural progression, for lack of a better term.
However, the protests right now in Iran are a direct result of Trump's 'Maximum Pressure Campaign'. Leaving the JCPOA on May 8th, 2018, Trump would go on to issue the harshest sanctions to ever be levied on Iran. He aimed for the ‘critical sectors’ of Iran’s economy. His goal was to reduce their oil exports, the backbone of their economy, to zero.
This sent Iran's economy into a tail spin. Inflation stepped in as the Rials flooded back into the country. The prices of good began to rapidly rise, forcing a reduction in living standards, business closures, and even an exudes to Turkey. This was only the beginning.
Is there a difference between civilians being killed in a drone strike and civilians being pushed to the brink of starvation and toppling their government due to sanctions? Not really. At least everyone is clear on what is happening with drone strikes and they only effect groups of civilians at a time. Not the entirety of a countries population the way sanctions do. And at least with a drone strike there is the potential of hitting the enemy's military targets. Not like sanctions that hurt the poorest civilian non-enemy combatants first, then begins to work it's way up to the military and government at the top. That is why sanctions are the most insidious weapons of war.
It is such an insidious weapon that it can take the 4th largest oil producer in the world and force them to quietly announce an oil rationing in the middle of the night on a Friday.
In Iran a liter of regular gasoline went from 10,000 Rials to 15,000 Rials on this not so subtle announcement. It also set a monthly limit on private car of 60 liters. The price on gas surpassing the allotment would cost 30,000 rials per liter. How that will be enforced is yet to be seen, but the intent is to raise money for programs that are helping low income families. What's with all this unemployment, corruption, and central planning in Iran? What came first, the chicken or the egg? I know the answer to at least the first one, it's sanctions.
This is all on the heels of protests in late 2017. The people where fed up with corruption and their living conditions. There is no excuse for this, again in the 4th largest oil producing country in the world. 'Death to the Dictator' were the chants. But this was also 2 years into the then active JCPOA. This was the small window of international trade that Iran was experiencing for the first time since 1979. So maybe some of this corruption and poor economic conditions where residual of the over 3 decades of economic oppression forced on them by the US. Maybe the people really were saying enough. Maybe Iran would have been on the come up. With a would be revolution and the ability to trade with the rest of the would, Iran perhaps could have final reached their potential. Whether or not they would remain friendly with the US would have been anyone's guess but it appears Washington was not willing to take any chances.
3 months later Trump leaves the nuclear accord and the US sits back and waits. The sentiment of that small protest movement wasn't going to disappear. There would come a second attempt to weed out the corruption. And if it was bad without sanction, just imagine. Trump was helping them along by issuing the sanctions. But the difference now is that, if there is to be a new leader in Iran they would have to play ball with Washington and they would have to come up under it's watchful eye.
Will these protest be successful? Will Hassan Rouhani be ousted? Will a new leader rise up to negotiate a near nuclear deal with more restraints on Iran's ballistic missile capabilities? It is way too early to tell. But what we can see is Trump's 'Maximum Pressure' tree is starting to bear fruit.