U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic

Playing poker with Iran

Iran and the U.S. seem to have reversed roles with the Trump administrationʹs decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranʹs isolation before the agreement now contrasts with Americaʹs determination to swim against the global tide. By Hassan Hakimian

"The Iran sanctions have officially been cast," tweeted U.S. President Donald Trump three months after he signed an executive order in May announcing his administrationʹs withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He went on to boast about the return of "the most biting sanctions ever imposed", as if sounding the death knell of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is officially known.

The announcement took few observers by surprise. But the irony was not lost on Wendy Sherman, the JCPOAʹs senior U.S. negotiator, who quipped recently that she had always expected "the greatest challenge to the dealʹs success would be violations by Iran, not the political machinations of the president of the United States."

Indeed, Iran and the U.S. seem to have reversed roles: Iranʹs isolation before the deal now contrasts with Americaʹs determination to swim against the global tide. Disappointment, if not disbelief, prevailed among the JCPOAʹs other parties – the European Union countries, Russia and China – whose leaders were quick to reaffirm their strong commitment to the agreement.

By contrast, U.S. officials have reiterated the Trump administrationʹs determination to rein in Iranʹs "nuclear ambitions" permanently, limit its ballistic missiles programme and scale down its regional influence. By the sanctionsʹ final stage, which kicks in on 4 November (coinciding, as it happens, with the 39th anniversary of the abduction of diplomats and staff at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979), the U.S. goal is to reduce Iranʹs oil exports "down to zero".

Are sanctions likely to be effective?

Given the long and fraught history of economic sanctions against Iran, the question looming now is whether they are more likely to be effective in changing the regime or its behaviour this time.

A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag (photo: Reuters/R. Homavandi)
De facto sanctions, regardless of their legality: "European firms will ultimately decide the outcome of the battle for secondary sanctions in cognizance of their shareholdersʹ interests – hence the significant stream of exits from Iranʹs markets already announced by Daimler and other global players. No-one is going to risk the ire of the U.S. Treasury willingly," writes Hashimian

The last time Iranʹs oil exports were reduced to negligible levels through an extensive economic boycott was in the mid-twentieth century, when Iranʹs popularly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalised the oil industry.

A British-led blockade of Iranʹs oil brought the industry to a virtual standstill, destabilised the economy and paved the way for the infamous U.S. and UK-instigated coup which restored the Shah to power in 1953.

Such has been the hangover from those tumultuous years that it took a half-century for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to acknowledge in 2000 that the coup that ousted Mossadegh was a clear "setback for Iranʹs political development" and a key reason "why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America." Such remorse, if it can be considered that, did not, however, close the door on more sanctions against Iran.

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