US Sanctions on Iran Hinder Hope of Future Progress

By Ria Mazumdar

The Iran nuclear deal was a milestone of Barack Obama’s legacy and the history of US-Iran relations. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran committed to limited enrichment activity and research, increased transparency and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other restrictions in exchange for the lifting of punitive sanctions which had cost the country over $160 billion from 2012 to 2016. [1] This revolutionary shift in US-Iran relations was directly overturned with Mike Pompeo’s announcement earlier on November 5th that the Trump administration will re-impose all sanctions that had been lifted in the 2015 agreement.

These sanctions are not simply punitive measures aimed at changing specific actions of the regime. Pompeo stated, “We want to restore democracy there,”[2] indicating a desire for fully-fledged regime change. However, this indicates both a blatant disrespect for sovereignty and ineffective political tactics. The exertion of US financial power to attempt a regime change in Iran will not only be ineffective, but also will backfire and foment increased political instability in the Middle East and global political system at large while decreasing US political capital.

Firstly, these measures will not shift Iran’s foreign policy incentives. These sanctions have the supposed goal of pressuring Iran into limiting its support of rebel groups in Syria and Lebanon. However, it seems clear from the past that such support is not only a priority of the Iranian government, but one that will take precedence over other domestic concerns when strained. By intensely straining relations, Washington will lose all potential future leverage on such matters, and fuel the anti-American sentiment that empowers such groups in the first place.

Secondly, sanctions will have devastating effects for Iranian citizens, rendering it a hypocritical move for the US due to its alleged consideration of human rights. Iran’s economy has been hit hard during the past year, facing hyperinflation and subsequent unemployment and currency fluctuations hitting the citizens above all. This crisis has precluded Iranian people from accessing simple consumer goods, including fruit, vegetables, and diapers. [3] It becomes difficult for the US to maintain a consistent position on humanitarian aid while simultaneously imposing sanctions that directly cripple the economy in this way. Sanctions have negative effects on the material conditions of Iranian citizens as well as general political opinion. The US would be better served through a policy of engagement, if nothing else, in order to quell the anti-American sentiment that kills soft power.

Thirdly, this policy will severely strain Washington’s relations with a number of other countries, reducing its clout in brokering future international agreements. Many member countries of the EU participated significantly in the 2015 negotiations, and viewed the deal as a landmark foreign policy achievement. Furthermore, tensions between the US and China and Russia due to diplomatic rifts, trade wars, and sanctions are likely to encourage the cooperation of other countries in defiance of the United States. Current trade demonstrates the likelihood of this happening: Chinese exports to Iran were around $19 billion last year, the EU exported $12 billion, and Russia exported roughly $2 billion and growing. [4] The logic of increasing trade is sound from multiple diplomatic perspectives. From a hardline stance, deepening commercial relations will allow countries to build more leverage, should the need to impose harsh economic penalties occur in the future. However, from a more diplomatically focused point of view, commercial relations can serve as a way to create linkages between civil societies, build relationships between governments, and forge common material interests in order to facilitate future cooperation.

Taking a hardline stance on Iran was always part of Trump’s policy agenda. However, the move to re-impose sanctions will not only prove ineffective to bring about the outcomes his administration purportedly supports, but it will also reduce the US’s ability to engage with Iran and other countries and negotiate successfully in the long-term. Sanctions will further devastate the Iranian economy, hurting its citizens while simultaneously failing to fundamentally change the government’s incentives. Other countries, including EU member states, will be unable to stick with past promises in the same way without US support. This is likely to actually pivot countries like China and Russia closer to Iran, encouraging increased trade flows and thus doing nothing besides boxing the US out of the diplomatic arena. Perhaps sanctions on Iran will rally Trump’s base shortly before a vital election. However, the unraveling of the historic 2015 nuclear deal is more than a political tool, it is a foreign policy disaster for everyone involved.

Ria Mazumdar is a senior at Tufts University where she is pursuing a dual degree in International Relations and Quantitive Economics. She is also currently the Editor-in-Chief of Hemisphere, the Tufts University Journal of International Affairs.

[1] BBC, Iran nuclear deal: Key Details, May 8 2018.

[2] Nicole Gaouette, Donna Borak, Jennifer Hansler, Mike Conte, Trump set to reimpose all Iran sanctions lifted by Obama, CNN, Nov 2, 2018.

[3] Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim, The latest sign of Iran’s economic distress: a shortage of diapers, Los Angeles Times, Sep 23, 2018.

[4] Jason Rezaian, Don’t sanction Iran – trade with it, Washington Post, Nov 1, 2018.

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