The US’s renewed sanctions against Iran might actually backfire (HAFEZ on EAP)

The decision by the US administration to renew sanctions on Iran, but to exclude certain major trade partners from it, is surprising and could potentially backfire. Furthermore, the justifications given for the renewed sanctions, specifically, the act of denouncing Iranian sponsored terrorism in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular is unconvincing, especially in light of the current events in Saudi Arabia.

Shutting the window but leaving the door wide open

The decision by the US government to exclude certain key Iranian trading partners from the sanctions (China, India, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, Greece and Italy) is puzzling. Indeed, by excluding these countries, the US has not impacted Iran as much as it could, or indeed, as much as it has declared it would. The decision to exclude China, India and Turkey from sanctions presumably has to do with geopolitics – the US probably does not wish to antagonize China further, nor tip India to favouring Russia, nor indeed to further irritate Turkey. Likewise, the decision to exclude South Korea and Japan may have been done on economic grounds, with the US not wishing to weaken allies in Asia. However, the decision to exclude Greece and Italy is rather more puzzling. Both countries are full members of the EU, which means that through these two countries, the rest of the EU could potentially continue to trade with Iran. In that case, why bother excluding the EU at all?

One can only suppose that the US sanctions perhaps wish to stop certain countries from having easy access to Iran – France and Germany, in particular spring to mind. In that sense, the sanctions would in reality be a way of hindering French and German inroads into the Iranian economy. In other words, marketing the sanctions as the most effective ever is hard when the trading partners most important to Iran are temporarily excluded from said sanctions.

One man’s terrorist….

Likewise the declared reasons behind the renewed sanctions are badly formulated to say the least. In a press briefing on the 5th November, Secretary of State Pompeo declared: “We have gone after the financial networks that the Iranian regime uses to fuel its terrorist proxies and Hizballah and Hamas, to fund the Houthis in Yemen, and to support the brutal Assad regime in Syria.” If Hezbollah and Hamas are indeed considered terrorist organisations by the US and the international community at large, including the EU, the question of trying to suppress the Houthis rebellion in Yemen is slightly more delicate in PR terms, since the UN has long denounced the atrocities committed in Yemen by the Houthis but also and especially by the Saudi led coalition. Furthermore, at a time when Saudi Arabia has found itself very exposed on the international human-rights scene (Yemen, Kashoggi, the arrest of large numbers of Shia Saudis not to mention the “house arrest” of many members of the royal family), targeting Iranian oil revenues smells suspiciously of wanting to help Riyad economically. Finally, to call out the Iranian support for the Assad regime in Syria is righteous, notwithstanding Iran’s role in helping to defeat ISIS, but in that case, sanctions must be just as unequivocally imposed by the US and its partners on Russia. The difficulty with these renewed sanctions will therefore be in selling them as just and merited.

Not a regime change, but an opportunity for the people to change the regime…

The renewed sanctions also have a hard time when it comes to justifying the end goal. The US government has repeatedly assured the international community that these sanctions are not aimed at triggering a regime change, but rather “to change the Iranian leadership’s behavior” and even “give the Iranian people the opportunity to have the government that they not only want but deserve.” Whilst one can digress on semantics – and no doubt that the Iranian population is grateful for the US’s desire to grant them what they deserve – it seems a little odd that for a country in the midst of a special investigation into foreign intervention in its elections and government, the US is openly admitting the same intentions towards Iran.

Quite apart from stoking the paranoid fires of the Iranian “hawks” and confirming the deeply rooted suspicions that Iranians have of western meddling (think back to “gharbzadegi” or Westoxication”) the US administration’s actions will do little to push the Iranian regime to try and find common ground and participate in peaceful discussions with it. On the contrary, whether intentionally or not, these latest actions and justifications from the US will be seen as vindicating the Iranian “hawks” and ironically enough, puts Iran in a much stronger position, both in terms of PR in the Middle East, but also with regards to the rest of the signatories of the JCPOA who now have to assure Teheran of their steadfastness more so than before.