Trump’s Iran sanctions philosophy

Amr Abdel-Ati
Wednesday 15 Aug 2018

Whereas Trump’s strong-arming appeared to work on North Korea, Iran is a different proposition, as Washington will likely find out

On 6 August, US President Donald Trump set into motion the first round of renewed economic sanctions against Iran, in accordance with the decision he announced 8 May to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear accord signed between Tehran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on 14 July 2015.

The first round of sanctions targets the Iranian automotive sector, trading in gold and other precious metals, and financial transactions related to the Iranian rial.

These sanctions were lifted two years ago after Iran demonstrated its commitment to halt its nuclear activities in accordance with the agreed-upon joint working plan.

The second round, due to go into effect 5 November, will be tougher and more damaging to the Iranian economy because it targets the Iranian petroleum sector and transactions between foreign financial institutions and the Iranian Central Bank.

Washington’s re-imposition of economic sanctions against Iran, as well as associated sanctions against businessmen, companies and countries that violate these sanctions, follows through on Trump’s stated belief that the nuclear deal was the worst agreement in US history because, according to him, it failed to deal with the Iranian missile programme and with Iran’s regional behaviour that threatens the stability of the Middle East.

It is also in line with the general foreign policy approach he has followed since his first day in the White House, which is to take a wrecking ball to international agreements, such as the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

He is convinced that he possesses special skills to negotiate new agreements that offer better terms for the US. Yet, as has become increasingly apparent, he lacks a strategic vision for what to do after destroying agreements and he lacks the ability to conclude new ones.

The first round of renewed sanctions against Iran is also consistent with the high priority that Washington gives to economic sanctions as a pressure tool.

It is the foremost soft strength instrument that the current administration turns to in order to compel adversaries to alter their behaviour and to adopt foreign policies that conform with and serve US economic and security interests.

In the process, Washington has tended to shun other more important and effective foreign policy instruments, such as partnering with allies in order to collectively pressure adversaries.

For example, in February alone the Trump administration imposed sanctions on organisations and individuals in North Korea, Columbia, Libya, the Congo, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines and Lebanon.

The Trump philosophy on how to manage foreign relations with the US’ adversaries holds that talking tough, escalating threats and intimidation, followed by tough economic sanctions will compel adversaries to come to the negotiating table.

The outlook is based on the premise that Trump has the ability to twist the arms of foreign leaders and win concessions from them in bilateral summits using his superb bargaining skills to wangle the best possible deals, just as he did in the real estate business.

The US president applied this philosophy with North Korea. The escalating rhetorical brinksmanship plus harsh financial and economic sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime ultimately worked to convince the North Korean leader to meet with Trump in Singapore on 12 June.

In that summit, Kim agreed to dismantle his country’s nuclear and missile programme in exchange for Washington’s pledge to allow the regime to stay and to allow North Korea to open up to the world economy.

Trump has applied the same tactic to Iran. In international public forums and in his tweets, he upped the tenor of intimidation against Tehran.

Then, on 30 July, he invited the Iranian president to meet and talk without any preconditions.

That was a few days before the introduction of the first round of sanctions against the Iranian regime, which is grappling with economic straits of a magnitude that has triggered mass protests throughout the country calling for, among other things, an end to the Iranian theocratic system of government.

By imposing what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described as the toughest sanctions in history against Iran, Washington plans to drive Tehran back to the negotiating table in order to work out a deal that better addresses the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes and its destabilising role in the Middle East.

Although the sanctions strategy succeeded in compelling Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to agree to talks with the US and five other international powers, crowned with the nuclear accord in mid-2015, Trump’s bid to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table could fail.

Prime among the challenges he faces in this regard is that the Trump philosophy has so far not succeeded in ending the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes.

US sanctions against Pyongyang remain in force against the backdrop of the lack of mutual confidence in each other’s commitment to the pledges they made in Singapore.

Secondly, there is a likelihood that instead of compelling Iran to soften its position and to sit down and talk, sanctions might have the opposite effect of driving Tehran to take a harder and more defiant line, which would aggravate the crisis.

A third challenge is that the Iranian hardline camp will use the sanctions issue to strengthen its political control, drumming up Iranian nationalist sentiments and anti-American feelings. This would strengthen the hardliners’ prospects in the next general and presidential elections in Iran.

Lastly, sanctions will lead to heightened tensions between the US and its European allies, China and Russia, all of which oppose the restrictions and economic difficulties that will affect their national industries and their citizens.

In the absence of an international consensus over these sanctions, their effect on the Iranian economic and financial systems will be weak, all the more so given the cumulative experience the Iranian regime has acquired in handling the repercussions of sanctions.

Consequently, their impact on Iranian decision-makers will be far less than was the case before the nuclear agreement was signed in 2015.

* The writer is an expert on US affairs at Al-Ahram’s Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump’s Iran sanctions philosophy

Short link: