And Their Children’s Children: Sippenhaft, Blood Feuds, and other Political Incentives

The seemingly never-ending confrontation between the U.S. and Iran appears to bring out some of the most unpredictable and hostile behavior and some of the most painful grand-standing by pundits and politicians alike.

An Euler diagram illustrating the association fallacy. Although A is within B and is also within C, not all of B is within C.

Association Fallacy Diagram. (Source:

The letter sent by 47 U.S. Senators dismissing political negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program has led some to brand the authors as traitors, others to hail them as patriots. Freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas seems to have a leading role in drafting the letter. Of course this piece is not about Senator Cotton, but about the fraught political nature of blood and blood metaphors. I want to use this opportunity and consider a theme that squats underneath another text Senator Cotton drafted about Iran. This ugly and ancient political idea illustrates the strangeness of political conceptions regarding Iran.

Senator Cotton’s 2013 withdrawn amendment gives me an excuse to revisit one of the most painful political uses of blood: Sippenhaft, or kin liability.

Frustrated with the possibility of evading sanctions by using family members to harbor assets from sanctions, Senator Cotton, at that time a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives offered an amendment to a resolution, the “Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013.” The amendment aimed to aid U.S. agencies in leveraging effective sanctions against Iranians accused of human rights violations, censorship, or theft from “common Iranian people.”  As Senator Cotton pointed out, letting these individuals “simply divert assets and income to relatives” would make a mockery of the Act, which he proposed to fix by adding “to the list of sanctions anyone married to those persons or to the third degree of consanguinity which in plain English are parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great-grandparents, grandkids, great-grandkids.”


Asked how the deception was to be investigated, Senator Cotton responded that

“There would be no investigation. If the prime malefactor of the family is identified as on the list for sanctions, then everyone within their family would automatically come within the sanctions regime, as well. It would be very hard to investigate and demonstrate through conclusive proof, and I think that we would leave a gaping loophole if we didn’t adopt this amendment.”

Over the next few minutes, a somewhat tense exchange followed between Senator Cotton and Florida Representative Alan Grayson, who responded that

“If the gentleman is seriously suggesting that a grandchild of a high Iranian public official is subject to sanctions, including 20 years of imprisonment under our laws and our Constitutions, all I can say is that the gentleman is completely mistaken, completely and utterly mistaken. And, frankly, the fact that you would even entertain the possibility that we would put such people in jail in the United States, that we would imprison them in the United States shows that the gentleman may not well understand the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and underscores my concern.”

Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island added that to “simply say because you are related that you are subject to criminal penalties, it seems to me that we—no one would want to do that. ”

Article-ThreeAnother point was raised, and that was the reference to Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution: “The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.” This constitutional definition of treason and the limitation to the perpetrator in person is the one root of the puzzle of why Senator Cotton’s colleagues were so adamant that he reword the amendment.

However, the opposing voices also seemed to express a less specific, not quite legal unease with the idea of determining guilt by bloodline. One immediate association is the use of Sippenhaft by totalitarian regimes like North Korea, in its political penal labour colonies, during Stalin’s Great Purge, and by the Nazis. Robert Loeffel has written extensively on the application of Sippenhaft in the Third Reich, and so I won’t rehearse the horrible history of this concept. Especially well-known is the fate suffered by the family of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. The Stauffenbergs were taken into Sippenhaft after the failed attack on Hitler on 20 July, 1944.

In a speech later that year, SS leader Himmler gestured to records of Germanic traditions according to which the tribe aimed to make an example of traitors by eradicating that person’s entire bloodline. Himmler advocated collective punishment for the Stauffenberg’s extended family, the seizure of all private family property, and the creation of veterans’ housing on seized lands. Here we find the original root of Sippenhaft, Blutrache, literally “blood revenge,” which English speakers most often refer to by its Italian name, vendetta. One of the most infamous U.S. vendettas is perhaps the Hatfield and McCoy feud. That feud took place in Arkansas, and while I have no intention of blaming the murderous activities of some citizens, I cannot help but smile at the coincidence. hatfield_mccoyThe point of the vendetta and all collective punishment of families is, of course, to create accountability and personal redress either without recourse to an existing rule of law, or because there is no rule of law. If the only recognizable social organization is that of the family, it seems reasonable that the family is the responsible party in any grievance. It is hard to tell in the transcript, but Senator Cotton seemed taken aback that what he perceived to be a focused and limited amendment could be read in such a way and pointed out that in Iran, proving intent would be near impossible for the U.S. government.

The final wording of H.R. 850 reads:

“Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, and annually thereafter for 3 years, the Secretary of State shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a detailed report with respect to whether each person described in subsection (a) or any family member of such person has facilitated deceptive transactions for or on behalf of any person subject to United States sanctions concerning Iran in violation of Executive Order 13608 of May 1, 2012 (77 Fed. Reg. 26409; 50 U.S.C. 1701 note) or any other provision of law. (2)Family member defined In this subsection, the term family member includes, with respect to a person, any relative of such person to the third degree of consanguinity.”

There seems to lie in the minds of some concerned with Iran the fear of an absence of the rule of law that leads to the fall-back of family ties as the only recognizable, provable legal organization of society. Why one would assume that bank statements could be falsified but not birth records I am not sure. But to construct legislation around consanguinity leaves a bitter taste in many mouths, be it because of associations with totalitarian rule, medieval politics, or frontier ideology. Even with the U.S.-Iran conflict approaching its seventh decade, nobody wants to see inherited threats of incarceration added to the mountain of political complications. While Senator Cotton’s letter certainly has gotten more attention from Iranians–H.R. 850 was never passed by the Senate–it remains to be seen if the feeling of distrust and suspicion once more leads to another unintentional legal atavism.

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