Trump Administration Re-Imposes Iran Sanctions
Drawing mixed reactions from allies, the U.S. government has placed financial pressure on Iran to cooperate with U.S. demands to negotiate a tougher nuclear deal.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration imposed U.S. sanctions on Iran Aug. 7, targeting the country’s economy as part of a program to counteract Iranian activities.
Under the first batch of sanctions in August, Iran is prevented from buying U.S. dollars or gold and other precious metals, as well as trading in aluminum. A second round of sanctions in November will affect Iranian exports, including oil and financial institutions.
The sanctions had previously been lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement reached in 2015 between Iran, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and the European Union to temporarily suspend the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. In exchange, Iran received relief from burdensome sanctions that had been imposed because of its nuclear-weapons research.
The Iran nuclear deal was supported by the U.S. bishops’ conference, which had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the agreement.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the head of the U.S. military archdiocese, told the National Security Council in May that he understood the administration’s concerns about Iranian nuclear capability, but he believed JCPOA provided the necessary limitations on Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons.
JCPOA had been criticized in the United States for a narrow focus on Iranian nuclear activities, to the exclusion of other concerns about its destabilizing actions in the region. After the United States withdrew from the deal in May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed 12 U.S. demands of Iran, including ending its ballistic-weapons program, halting its support for terrorist organizations in the Middle East, and withdrawing from Syria.
In addition, Pompeo announced Aug. 16 the creation of the Iran Action Group at the Department of State to oversee U.S.-Iran policy.
Sanctions Kick In
Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the Register the early results of the sanctions have been mixed. While they have encouraged some non-American countries and companies to halt trade with Iran, they had so far not produced any change of heart in the Iranian regime. And Reuters reported Aug. 21 that officials of the Iraqi government signaled the country may ignore some of the U.S. sanctions on its neighbor, Iran.
The future of the nuclear deal without U.S. involvement has been an open question. Weitz said that, on balance, Iran would be better served by continuing to operate within the framework of the JCPOA. By walking away from the deal, Iran could alienate the European Union and other countries, who would then apply their own sanctions.
“I think, so far, the Iranians have decided that even though they’ll get fewer benefits by sticking to the deal, it’s better than getting no benefits by going for a more extensive nuclear program.”
But much of what Iran does in the future will depend on its internal political balance, said Weitz. Hardliners could press for the country to make a strong stand against U.S. pressure, while the leadership who signed the deal could be discredited by the U.S. withdrawal.
For the present, Ayatollah Khamenei has banned Iran’s government from holding direct talks with the U.S., saying the country does not keep its promises.
Will Sanctions Bring a New Deal?
Jim Phillips, a senior fellow at the Heritage Institute, told the Register there was a chance the Iranians could adhere to the nuclear deal, hoping to outwait President Donald Trump for a more amenable leader.
“But I think, eventually, Iran will have to come back to the negotiating table,” he said.
Phillips, who called the 2015 Iran deal “wishful thinking,” said the new sanctions would “undermine the ability of the Iranian regime to threaten its neighbors, attack U.S. interests, finance regional militias and oppress its own people.”
The nuclear deal had freed up significant sums for the Iranian government — anywhere from $56 billion to $100 billion, according to various analysts. The opening up of the European market also provided a significant boost to the national economy.
Since the 2015 deal had been signed, Phillips said, the Iranian government had escalated its intervention in Syria and its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. “The Iranians had a lot more money to throw around because of the sanctions being lifted,” said Phillips.
Yet, David Cortright, the director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told the Register the United States had been “wrongheaded” in withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
“I don’t see what actual impact it will have on Iran in exerting more pressure. It was a mistake to break an agreement that was working quite well for the purposes it was negotiated for — to prevent Iran from developing the capacity to build a bomb,” Cortright said.
The earlier sanctions, which were levied by the United States, European Union and United Nations, had convinced Iranians to accept restrictions on its nuclear program.
But unilateral sanctions like the United States has imposed are often unsuccessful, Cortright said, and work best when the nations that impose them have strong economic and diplomatic ties with the target nations. The long-standing enmity between the United States and Iran means the impact, while significant, is not unusual and will not prompt the Iranian government to return to the negotiating table, he predicted.
While Trump administration figures are bullish about economic sanctions changing Iranian attitudes, Iran could move to lessen their impact by shifting more trade, including oil, toward Asia, where trading partners like India and China are relatively immune to U.S. pressure.
U.S. allies have had mixed reactions to the announced sanctions. While the E.U. opposes them, European companies have been withdrawing from Iran in order not to jeopardize their business in the U.S. market, according to Cortright.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on the other hand, agreed at first to comply with all sanctions, but has since walked back his remarks. According to a Reuters report, Iraq is preparing to ask the U.S. for exemptions from some sanctions.
Iraq and Iran are closely aligned, said Cortright, and have a significant economic relationship.
“If Iraq opts out, the pinch against Iran is lessened,” he said.
Morality of Sanctions
Cortright said that the U.N. and E.U. had been moving away from general trade sanctions, which affect the whole populace of a country, toward targeted sanctions that affect named individuals.
“The idea that ‘if you make the citizens suffer the policy of the government will change’ almost never works, and it’s immoral.”
Targeted sanctions focus on punishing high-ranking figures in a target country by preventing them from traveling or blocking access to their finances while minimizing the effect on the people of a country.
Pope John Paul II often criticized international sanctions, especially those levied on Iraq during the ’90s. In a 1998 address to diplomats, he said that “the weak and the innocent cannot pay for mistakes for which they are not responsible.”
Cortright also cautioned that the sanctions could act to strengthen the hand of Iranian hardliners.
“When we impose sanctions like this, it really helps the ayatollahs, since they can blame their problems on the U.S.,” he said. “They’ve always been doing that, but now with the angry rhetoric toward Iran, you get a ‘rally around the flag’ effect.”
“In a way,” Cortright added, “we give the leadership a free pass by allowing them to blame foreigners for their own political and economic problems.”
Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.