On November 2, 2018 Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin held an on-the-record briefing on Iran sanctions.
The former said that these were part of the campaign aimed at depriving Tehran of the revenues that it uses to spread death and destruction around the world. The latter called Iran world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. And a few days later, in responding to a question regarding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Mr. Pompeo said that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for the U.S. in attempting to change the behavior of Iran.
The foregoing reflects Washington’s, Israel’s and their Gulf Allies’ frustration with Tehran’s growing regional reach. Disappointingly for them, this is today’s reality. However, one cannot but observe that this is the outcome of two opportunities offered to Iran on a silver platter: the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the West’s failed attempt at regime change in Syria. Because, anyone with basic knowledge of the Middle East would have known from the very beginning that Iran has more political/economic/social/cultural infrastructure in these two countries than any other competitor. Moreover, it has the ability to make “good” or “evil” use of this capacity, depending on one’s vantage point, as confirmed by the developments of the last fifteen years. All regional and global powers rapidly and voluntarily became parties to Syria’s proxy wars. Iran paid a cost but it appears to be on the winning side for now and the foreseeable future at least. There are others who also paid a price, actually a very high price without accomplishing anything but creating huge problems for themselves.
During the briefing, Mr. Pompeo referred to President Trump’s withdrawal from the “fatally flawed nuclear deal” as the starting point of this campaign. Yet, on November 5, 2018, E.U. High Representative Federica Mogherini, Foreign and Finance Ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom (the E3) issued a statement objecting to the re-imposition of sanctions and their underlying rationale.
As they have said, the JCPOA is a key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture and multilateral diplomacy, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed in twelve consecutive reports that Iran is abiding by its commitments under the Agreement. Consequently, E3’s professed aim to protect European economic operators engaged in legitimate business with Iran in accordance with EU law and with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is perfectly understandable.
Secretary Pompeo has stressed that European companies will not be permitted to do business with both the United States and with Iran adding that since the President’s announcement of withdrawal from the JCPOA, “European companies have fled Iran in great numbers”. So, how far the E3 would go in challenging the sanctions and how this would impact the already strained transatlantic relationship remains to be seen.
Mr. Pompeo has also said that temporary allotments have been allotted to a handful of countries responsible to specific circumstances and to ensure a well-supplied oil market. These are China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. According to Mr. Pompeo, each of those countries has already demonstrated significant reductions of the purchase of Iranian crude over the past six months, and indeed two of those eight have already completely ended imports of Iranian crude and will not resume as long as the sanctions regime remains in place. Washington apparently is continuing negotiations to get all nations to zero.
It can be said with certainty that China, India and some others included in this group will never cease buying Iranian oil. They could say that U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA is a violation of the principal pacta sunt servanda and the sanctions, in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, lack international legitimacy. And, the bargaining may continue.
Turkey has paid a high price for the sanctions targeting the regime of Saddam Hussein. Now it is being asked to pay a price for Iran sanctions. Asking countries to constantly pay a price for their neighbors’ policies is unfair.
Despite Trump administration’s claims, sanctions have never proved to be an effective way of convincing countries to change policies and they hurt people more than the regimes targeted. In the case of North Korea Washington does not seem to be in a hurry and emphasizes that sanctions are in place and the stopping of nuclear tests, missile tests are important. They are indeed important, but concluding the first ever JCPOA with Pyongyang twenty years ago could have been a much better option.
Washington constantly underlines that the aim of the sanctions is to force Iran to change its behavior. In reality, the sanctions are more likely to empower hardliners in Iran. It could be that for the Trump administration this would be a welcome development for a greater project: regime change. If this is indeed where Washington is heading, the Middle East could soon come to regard today’s turmoil as a period of at least controlled instability. The U.S. has a lot more to gain by investing in a major multilateral effort to bring peace to the region as this would be the only lasting response to the problem of immigration, the most divisive issue facing Western democracies.