Trump’s Iran sanctions – another destructive adventure
The draconian tightening of punitive sanctions on Iran by the US alone starting today could not have come at a worse time for Middle East politics.
They underline President Donald Trump’s determination to force the Iranian regime to return to the negotiating table for a new agreement that would make it impossible for Tehran to build nuclear weapons at any time in the future.
He also wants to prevent Iran for developing ballistic missiles, whether conventional or armed with nuclear warheads, and prohibit interference in Mideast politics through violent in-country militancy, which the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia denounce as terrorism.
These Trump goals are not publicly supported by any European power or the United Nations because they cannot be achieved without destabilizing the Shia Muslim theocracy that has ruled Iran since the Westernized pro-American Shah of Iran was deposed by the traditionalist religious revolutionaries in 1979.
This is an awfully destructive time to destabilize Iran because it will be next to impossible to put that Humpty Dumpty together after pushing it off the wall. It may not descend into bloody chaos as in Syria but it will certainly be beyond the Trump administration’s capacity to install a US-friendly regime in Tehran to replace the current authoritarian theocrats.
In May 2018, The Trump administration withdrew unilaterally from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded with Iran in 2015. Iran signed that accord to obtain relief from tough earlier sanctions and more freedom to conduct international trade in oil and other products. In exchange, it drastically cut back its nuclear programs.
Iran did not get all of the promised relief because Washington dragged its feet. Now, the other JCPOA signatories – Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – sharply oppose the Trump walk out and are trying to help Iran to survive the severest sanctions.
Helping Iran might not be easy but their efforts certainly inflict damage on American foreign policy because they open a serious rift between Washington and its closest allies, France, Britain and Germany. That delights America’s toughest geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.
A statement today by Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo gave no ground to the objectors. “Our ultimate goal is to convince the (Iranian) regime to abandon its current revolutionary course. The Iranian regime has a choice. It can either do a 180-degree turn from its outlaw course of action and act like a normal country, or it can see its economy crumble.”
It is precisely this economic crumbling that scares Washington’s allies and rivals because Iran is a pivotal economy in a very strategic geographic location. Its tough-minded regime cannot be brought to heel by economic pressures that will inevitably cause suffering to it poorer people.
Iran is a middle eastern country and like authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, its well-armed and well-organized theocrats are more likely to respond with much more police and military repression of their own citizens to continue in power.
Like other Mideast countries, it is not the kind of place where peaceful color revolutions take place. Just think of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.
Iran is very far from the US but it is not far from Europe and is a neighbor for Russia, China, India and Trump’s special protégé, Israel. It will not be hard at all for Tehran to provoke terrorist violence inside Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which are Trump’s favored Sunni Arab allies.
Even a war in which the Iranian theocracy is crushingly defeated will not solve the transgressions that Trump wants to punish because none of his allies can successfully occupy, rule or stabilize Iran, an ancient nation of over 81 million people. Not least because Iran’s Shai Islam has been remained unbowed before Saudi Sunni Islam for nearly 1,600 years and the Gulf Arabs have never been able to conquer or even cow down Iran’s Persian people.
Super power America’s own occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan failed although both were much less powerful and less populated than Iran.
“We hope a new agreement with Iran is possible, but until Iran makes changes in the 12 ways that I listed in May, we will be relentless in exerting pressure on the regime. As a reflection of that resolve, today we’re reimposing all sanctions that were previously lifted under the nuclear deal. This includes sanctions on energy, banking, shipping, and shipbuilding industries,” Pompeo said.
The 12 demands are nonstarters for the Tehran regime because, in addition to prohibitions on nuclear program development, they want Iran to withdraw all military support from Syria, abandon ballistic missile defenses, stop supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen, disband Shia militias in Iraq, and halt all threatening behavior towards its neighbors.
No self-respecting sovereign country would cravenly surrender with such multi-pronged actions against its own perceived national interests just to please an American President with a short attention span and who may last a maximum of only six years.
Iran is not a post World War I creation of European colonial powers, as modern Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. It is an ancient and cohesive Persian civilization going back 3,000-5,000 years, which was never fully colonized partly because of its difficult to conquer location (although it was in the “sphere of influence” at various times in the 19th and 20th centuries of Russia, Britain, France and the US).
The main and most lethal weapon in Pompeo’s arsenal is the threat that all companies and governments that continue any dollar-based transactions with Iran will be cut off from the US financial system and markets, in addition to facing very severe penalties and fines. More than 100 international companies have already withdrawn from Iran to avoid being crushed in the US Treasury’s maw.
But Tehran’s cold stubbornness is already well on display despite having lost about $2.5 billion in oil revenues since May. President Hassan Rouhani ridiculed Trump’s resolve to pulverize Iran’s only large source of money by reducing its oil exports to zero in short order.
Washington has granted temporary six month waivers only to China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. But they will have to reduce business with Iran to avoid sanctions later.
Treasury Secretary Robert Mnuchin said today Iran’s banking, energy, and shipping sectors are being directly targeted. He sanctioned 50 banks and more than 700 individuals, entities, aircraft, and vessels as part of Treasury’s largest ever single day action against Iran. Over 300 of those sanctions were new targets.
He is also relisting hundreds of individuals and entities that were previously sanctioned but were granted sanctions relief under the JCPOA. Combined with the previous actions, more than 900 Iran-related targets have been sanctioned in less than two years, marking the highest-ever level of U.S. economic pressure on Iran.
“We are making it abundantly clear to the Iranian regime that they will face mounting financial isolation until they fundamentally change their destabilizing behavior,” Mnuchin said.
The Trump administration is declaring its unprecedented coercive actions with pride and seems oblivious to the “sad” fact that it is alone. The Iranian regime, however distasteful to Saudi Arabia and Israel, has the sympathy of not only America’s Western European allies but also its powerful neighbors, China, Russia and India.
Trump cannot bring all of them to their knees to fulfill his fantasy of destroying the JCPOA just because it was one of Barack Obama’s great achievements and made the entire region much safer.
Trump’s people are misreading Arab politics and Arab loyalties once again, surprisingly for a country that has been at the heart of the Middle East politics since the 1930s when Saudi Arabia became an oil power and Iran was a friend.
America’s Gulf Arab allies let Americans die in Iraq and again in Syria and let its tax payers spend several trillion dollars of their money in the region. In return, they spent hardly any money of their own, sent very few of their soldiers to die alongside Americans, and did nothing at all to honor the American people’s values by becoming democracies with decent behavior towards women and minorities.
Now Trump, Pompeo and Mnuchin are plunging into this cauldron with sabers drawn as if Iran’s Shia Muslims, hated by Saudi Salafist Muslims, are hereditary enemies of the nearly three billion great peoples in their neighborhood — Russia’s Orthodox Christians, China’s Taoists, Confucians and Buddhists, and India’s Hindus and Sufi Muslims.
This is just not so. And whatever pain Trump manages to cause to Iran’s hapless Shia Muslims crushed under a ruthless theocratic thumb, he certainly cannot conjure a liberal regime there. If only because his favored Gulf Arab and Egyptian friends are awfully repressive authoritarians too.