The Strategic Folly of Reimposing Sanctions on Iran

Trump called the nuclear deal with Iran the 'the worst deal ever.' Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP

One of the most consequential national security decisions of Donald J. Trump‘s presidency passed by quietly last week as much of the media attention in the United States was focused on the midterm elections.

On November 5, the U.S. unilaterally reimposed oil and banking sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is formally known. Trump claims he withdrew from the 2015 accord with the intention of turning up the heat on Iran to get a better deal. Others argue, rightly in our view, that the Trump administration’s ultimate goal is actually regime change.

But regardless of whether Trump is gunning for a better deal or regime change, reimposing these sanctions has no tactical or strategic value, and will only serve to isolate the United States, weaken our national security, and embolden America’s adversaries, including Iran.

Aside from the fact that reimposing these sanctions puts the U.S. in material breach of the JCPOA, perhaps the biggest flaw in Trump’s plan is that our allies and partners in the deal – the European Union, China, and Russia – want to keep it alive and have little interest in participating in new sanctions.

International Cooperation

Former President Barack Obama’s sanctions regime on Iran was so successful because he was able to wrangle the international cooperation needed to dramatically reduce Iran’s oil exports. Back then, the E.U., China, Russia and other large oil importing nations like India and South Korea all agreed that Iran’s nuclear program had to be reined in and that cutting back on buying Iranian oil was the first step towards doing just that. The Trump administration has nowhere near this level of cooperation, and thus it’s at best unclear whether Iran will feel a similar economic squeeze.

What’s more, Trump’s sanctions have the added effect of benefiting Russia, as it stands to gain handsomely in the absence of Iranian oil on the world market. Without the free flow of Iranian crude, Europe and Asia will undoubtedly turn more to Russia as an alternative source. Moscow also wants to throw Iran a lifeline by setting up a scheme to purchase Iranian oil for domestic consumption, thereby freeing up more crude for Russia to sell abroad.

At the same time, Trump’s Iran policy is further alienating the U.S. from our European allies. While big European companies like Total and Siemens have pulled out of Iran to avoid American secondary sanctions, the E.U. is working on a so-called “special purpose vehicle” independent from the U.S. dollar-dominated international financial system to facilitate trade between small and medium-sized European companies and Iran.

Whether this mechanism succeeds or not remains to be seen, but the damage has been done. Our own allies have started to break away from the American dominated global financial system – something the Russians and Chinese have been pushing for some time –  thereby undermining U.S. economic might and global leadership.

Bad Policy

To be clear, Iran will feel some economic pain. Its currency value has already plummeted and its oil exports have been cut by about 1 million barrels per day. But the Iranians have weathered similar storms before. And it’s likely that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign will fail to materialize, essentially closing the door on the possibility of Iranians returning to the negotiating table and thereby lessening the probability of creating the conditions for regime change. Even if Trump succeeded in near-zeroing out Iranian oil exports, he’d face another big problem: a spike in gas prices back at home.

The bottom line is that Trump abandoning the JCPOA and reimposing sanctions is bad policy: it drives us further from Europe, undermines the credibility of America’s diplomatic toolkit, threatens U.S. global economic leadership, potentially rewards rivals like Russia, and unlocks the constraints on Iran racing towards a bomb.

Indeed, when the dust settles from Trump’s sanctions, the Iran nuclear deal will either be on life support waiting for a new American administration to save it, or the regime in Tehran will decide that it has had enough.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: AFP

Iran’s continued compliance with the nuclear agreement has been often overlooked, particularly considering that the main talking point of JCPOA opponents has been that Iran will cheat. But should efforts by Europe, Russia, and others to provide Iran with enough economic incentives fail, Tehran could very well respond by restarting elements of its nuclear program that had been frozen or rolled-back.

It’s clear then that the U.S. must return to full compliance with the JCPOA. The U.S. and its partners should focus on Iran’s nefarious and destabilizing regional actions, and not spend time worrying about issues that were rectified in 2015.

Unfortunately, it seems that Trump has put the U.S. back where it started, only more isolated than ever before, with the path to war reopened once again.

Kelly McFarland And Ben Armbruster :McFarland is a US diplomatic historian and Director of Programs and Research at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Armbruster is the communications director for Win Without War, a project of the Center for International Policy

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