As Washington is set to impose sanctions against Hong Kong’s leaders, local anti-government figures cheer. I am just puzzled. A desperate city government trying to restore social order from violent unrest or repressing dissent and freedom? Take your pick. But either way, how is it any of America’s business? It’s like China sanctioning United States police chiefs for cops’ brutality against protesters and killings against unarmed US citizens. Under US sanctions, several hapless officials in Hong Kong have been targeted. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah had to pay off a mortgage in full to Standard Chartered. And Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor may have problems shopping with her credit cards , if she still has any. But this is a woman who confessed to not knowing how to buy toilet paper when she was electioneering for her current job, so I doubt she does much shopping by herself. According to the US Treasury Department, a formal report has been submitted to the US Congress identifying mainland and Hong Kong officials as responsible for China failing to “meet its obligations under the Joint Declaration or the Basic Law ”. I am unaware of the existence of such a treaty as the Sino-British-American Joint Declaration, but maybe Washington knows better. US may sanction banks doing business with those linked to Hong Kong crackdown For the benefit of readers not from the city, the Basic Law is the foundational constitutional document for the Hong Kong SAR after the 1997 handover. Imagine this: the Chinese decide some local officials of an American city have breached their obligations under its governing charter, so they sanction not only those officials, but federal ones as well. Or better, they decide policies of the Trump administration have violated the US Constitution and therefore it deserves Chinese sanctions. But of course, what America says goes. When you are on its “excrement” list, you can be sanctioned for a treaty to which the US is not even a party. However, you can abide by the terms of a treaty to which the US was a signatory and still be sanctioned. This has been the case with Iran. And unlike that of Hong Kong, it’s no laughing matter, but one with deadly consequences. Iran is the country to be worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East, with more than half a million cases and more than 27,000 deaths, though experts believe the real numbers may be much higher. But this month, against the warnings of European allies of catastrophic humanitarian consequences, Washington imposed more sanctions against what’s left of Iran’s banking sector, essentially choking off its ability to pay for basic supplies to sustain a civilian population. The policy, according to a report in The Washington Post , was encouraged by Israel and the pro-Israel Foundation for Defence of Democracies, as well as US Republican senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, both of whom played a key role in US actions against Hong Kong. Cotton, of course, had called for the deployment of the US military against civilians protesting against police killings, in an infamous op-ed published in The New York Times . The State Department says medical and humanitarian supplies to Iran are exempt, but aid experts and the allied governments of France, Britain and Germany have dismissed the claims. “Anyone claiming these sanctions don’t impact humanitarian trade with Iran is either lying or ignorant,” tweeted Holly Dagres, of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. China’s foreign ministry vows countermeasures over Hong Kong sanctions As Barbara Slavin, director of the council’s Future of Iran Initiative, told CNN: “These sanctions are sadism masquerading as foreign policy.” Back in March, even a lawyer at the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the financial intelligence and enforcement agency of the US Treasury, told The Washington Post the US had created “a legal and business environment equivalent to walking through a compliance minefield”. Most foreign companies and aid bodies just couldn’t be bothered dealing with Iran given the “compliance minefield”. Last year, Iran imported US$1 billion worth of medical goods and grain worth US$3.5 billion. It will have trouble paying for them from now on. The latest sanctions come as Washington has been pressuring the International Monetary Fund not to approve a US$5 billion loan requested by Tehran to help with the fight against the pandemic. It was Trump who, in 2018, walked away from the so-called P5 + 1 Iran deal, which includes the five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council – the US, Britain, Russia, France, and China plus Germany – and the European Union. Even America’s own intelligence agencies couldn’t produce evidence that Iran had violated the terms of the deal. Since then, Washington has repeatedly added sanctions after sanctions while all the other parties to the Iran pact have resisted pressure by the Americans to join their anti-Iranian efforts. In fact, by international law, the UN has far more cause to impose international sanctions against the US for undermining the nuclear deal approved and supported by the international community. Hong Kong braces for Monday as US sanctions report puts HSBC, banks in flux Of course, this won’t be the first time for US sanctions to target an entire population. In 1995, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that 576,000 Iraqi children had died since the end of the first Gulf war because of economic sanctions led by the US. But as Thucydides famously wrote, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Not without reason, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has accused Washington of committing a “crime against humanity” with its piled-on sanctions. That’s just angry rhetoric, of course. No international bodies, even those tasked under international law to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity, have a chance going after the US. After the International Criminal Court authorised its prosecutors to investigate suspected war crimes committed by the US military, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last month US sanctions against not only ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, its head of the Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, but also their family members. The measures are a breathtaking display of hypocrisy and lawlessness. While some ignorant Hongkongers cheer US sanctions against their own city and country, they really have no idea who they are supporting, or that they are merely pawns in Washington’s “great game”. Slavin of the Atlantic Council puts it well. The Iran sanctions won’t achieve a regime change in Iran but rather solidifies its public support from a population under siege. “It will hurt ordinary people, encourage more smuggling and in the long run, undermine the dollar-based sanctions,” Slavin said. America’s leaders may feel all-powerful now, but US sanctions are losing whatever moral force they once might have had, and are increasingly seen around the world for what they are: blunt, ruthless and cruel instruments of US foreign policy driven by a naked power politics.