Renewing sanctions is just the latest Iran gamble by the Trump administration.
First came the abrogation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, a pact even the administration acknowledged Tehran was upholding. President Donald Trump’s rejection of the accord not only leaves the nuclear weapons issue unresolved, it signals that any deal signed by a president can be jettisoned by the next administration. That’s a dangerous sign to send amid increased proliferation.
Now the administration is betting that reverting to pre-JCPOA sanctions will curb the theocracy’s regionally destabilizing behavior — a worthy objective, but hardly a sure thing. In fact, Tehran may be tempted to do the opposite, according to Dennis Ross, a former Mideast envoy who is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
“Will the sanctions put more pressure on Iran? Yes, they will,” Ross, told an editorial writer. “Will Iran change its behavior in response to the sanctions? Very unlikely, at least for some time to come.” In fact, Ross said that Iran may be even more provocative, on top of its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah and Hamas, which the U.S. rightly considers terrorist groups.
It’s not just the Mideast that’s roiled by this issue. European allies are also reeling as they balance Trump administration threats with their commitment to the Iran deal. “Our collective resolve to complete this work is unwavering,” envoys from the European Union, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — which were all party to the JCPOA — said in a statement.
Furthering the affront to these staunch allies is the fact that eight nations have been granted waivers, at least temporarily. This list includes China, South Korea and Japan, which were perhaps spared because they are key to a North Korean nuclear deal the Trump administration is pursuing. Regional behemoth India is on the waiver list, too.
European nations, which are trying to create a workaround, shouldn’t have been put in a position of direct opposition to the United States. Global unanimity, after all, pushed Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place, and Iranian leaders may try to exploit the divide the U.S. action has created.
There’s also the issue of global oil prices. If the U.S. is successful in dramatically reducing Iranian oil exports, it will need added domestic production, as well as free-flowing Saudi oil, to make up the difference. But this comes amid a crisis in the U.S.-Saudi relationship over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s brutal tactics in Yemen’s civil war that have sparked the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
Along with Britain, the U.S. is finally, rightly, pushing for an end to the senseless toll in Yemen. It should continue to do so, but not let up pressure on the kingdom for its role in the Khashoggi case. If the administration balks, Congress should end its complicity by finding its voice — and spine — and vote to pressure Riyadh by blocking arms sales, among other measures.
The Iranian government is indeed a malevolent force in the region, and the world. But the Iranian people are victims, not villains, in this dynamic. So the administration should try to make it perfectly clear that it is not trying to punish Iran’s already-beleaguered citizens, but change its government’s bellicosity. Trump made a major mistake by tweeting out an in-your-face image saying “Sanctions are coming” — an obvious reference to the “Winter is coming” phrase from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV series.
Sanctions aren’t a pop-culture meme. They’re brutal on everyday citizens, especially those deprived of livelihoods, or even lives when they cannot get medicine. Through hubris, the administration made Iran’s case that the real enemy is Washington, not Tehran. That was a risk better left not taken.