Pedestrians walk past a vendor on a street in downtown...

Pedestrians walk past a vendor on a street in downtown Tehran, Iran. Credit: AP, 2010

The new sanctions against Iran last week are considered the strongest the United States "has ever imposed on any country during peacetime." While this is being celebrated as a way to prevent war, support human rights in Iran and stop Iran's nuclear program, America's past experience with sanctions shows that this is far from the case.

The previous high-water mark for U.S. sanctions -- on Iraq -- is a case in point. Years of stringent economic sanctions supposedly aimed at Saddam Hussein caused massive humanitarian suffering among ordinary Iraqis. The sanctions led to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi women and children, while entrenching Hussein's regime. Ultimately, the strategy culminated in a war and occupation that is widely viewed as one of the greatest strategic blunders since Vietnam.

With Iran, the United States is pursuing a policy of collective punishment, which is disconcerting not just because of the ghastly failures of such measures in the past, but because collective punishment is a violation of international human rights law.

The abhorrent human rights abuses of the Iranian regime have been well exposed, thanks to the work of human rights organizations and the United Nations. But Iranians don't just suffer under the repression of a regime that is rightly punished for its human rights violations -- they are also suffering under U.S. collective punishment sanctions that are preventing food and medicine from reaching ordinary Iranians, are blocking off communication tools from human rights and democracy defenders, and are aimed at collapsing the Iranian economy and all of the ordinary people under it.

The drafters of the most recently passed U.S. measure stated: "The bill aims to prevent Iran from repatriating any of the revenue it receives from the sale of its crude oil, depriving Iran of hard currency earnings and funds to run its state budget." In other words, the idea is to bankrupt Iran, cause hyperinflation to crash the rial and collapse the economy, and provoke mass suffering.

It would be one thing if these measures were aimed at denying the Iranian government financing for its nefarious activities. But that's not even the stated goal. Ordinary people in Iran are no longer collateral damage, but the intended targets of sanctions.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights codifies economic rights as a human right to which all members of society are entitled. The Fourth Geneva Convention states that parties "shall allow the free passage . . . of medical and hospital stores" and "essential foodstuffs."

Yet in Iran, the price of food has skyrocketed. There are almost no channels for transactions of food products that are supposed to be exempted from the sanctions. Private businesses are increasingly unable to operate in a sanctions economy. Organizations like the Iranian Hemophilia Society are reporting that access to medicine is being closed off, and the lives of tens of thousands of children are now at risk. Testing for education programs abroad is being cut off for Iranian students.

These are all abuses of human rights -- due to the sanctions.

Few believe sanctions will make Iran halt its nuclear program. Rather, it is more likely that the Iranian regime will respond to the pressure by escalating the conflict. Beyond destabilizing the Persian Gulf -- with skyrocketing oil prices as a result -- Tehran may also decide to dash for a nuclear bomb, a decision U.S. intelligence says Iran has not yet made.

Nor are sanctions likely to bring about positive change inside Iran. While economic collapse can bring down a regime, it will most likely not give birth to democracy. Rather, if sanctions cause the theocracy in Iran to fall, against all odds, it is more probable that we will see a collapse of the state, followed by internal fighting -- and perhaps a Syrian-style civil war. The region will be further destabilized, and extremism will find a new breeding ground. Human suffering will be immeasurable.

Policymakers may say these are unintended consequences, yet in the same breath they acknowledge that the goal is to collapse Iran's economy. Many in Washington acknowledge that we are conducting economic warfare. That means the entire Iranian economy is the battlefield -- and ordinary Iranians are enemy combatants.

Jamal Abdi is the policy director of the National Iranian American Council. Trita Parsi, author of "A Single Roll of the Dice -- Obama's Diplomacy with Iran," is the council's founder and president.