The administration of US President Donald Trump after assuming office in January 2017 set out with the objective, in line with the president’s electoral campaign, to roll back America’s excessive engagements overseas and divert resources back home. However, quite ironically, it finds itself more entangled today in various trouble spots than the preceding administrations.
The administration’s ever-increasing coercive measures in the form of excessive sanctions can only be understood as desperate moves to push intransigent countries into the American sphere of influence as soon as possible in view of the presidential elections in November 2020. However, these moves have not yielded any positive results as yet.
US entanglements abroad seem not only to be lacking neatly defined objectives, they are clearly outstripping the resources committed. Opening up several areas of conflict including a trade war with China, offensive denuclearization campaigns against Iran and North Korea, sanctions against Russia, continuing entanglements in Syria, Yemen and Iraq with an objective to stem alleged subversive regional activities of Iran, and attempts at influencing political conditions in Venezuela as a way to serve its interests as well as undermine Russian influence have been sapping American energies abroad as well as bringing more complexities to already existing tensions.
Unilateral and unremitting sanctions without tight and coherent linkage between the sanctions and their objectives engender a feeling that they are geared toward regime change in the target countries, while the Trump administration has not explicitly stated anywhere the term “regime change” in reference to either Iran or North Korea.
Even while the United Nations atomic watchdog has confirmed that Iran continues to stay within the limitations set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached in 2015 with major powers despite the US withdrawal from the deal, the Trump administration’s continued sanctions as well as anti-Iran rhetoric raise the possibilities of conflict and appear to be a move toward engineering a regime change in Tehran. On the other side, Iranian leaders have announced that they will restart uranium processing unless other signatories of the JCPOA, which comprise China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union, can find ways to ease the harsh sanctions imposed by the US.
Similarly, it is likely that offensive gestures toward China and Russia will encourage them to find ways to back the Iranian resistance. In a recent turn of events, in response to the explosions damaging four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, quickly followed by drones crashing into Saudi oil facilities and shutting down a pipeline, the Trump administration not only imposed additional sanctions on Iran, it deployed an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region in anticipation of Iranian threats to American presence in the region, whereas the Iranian role in these events has not been proved.
In fact, the US move has added complexity to already volatile conditions in the region. In this context, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remark that the US is prepared to hold talks with Tehran about its nuclear program without preconditions but first needed to see Iran behaving like “a normal nation” appears to be rhetoric (until Iranian involvement in regional subversive activities is proved), as it remains unclear how Iran can act as a normal nation if it has not committed subversive actions and its nuclear enrichment is still within authorized limits.
The US sanctions have hit Tehran hard in the energy, shipping and financial sectors and caused foreign investment to dry up, while hitting oil exports as well. The sanctions have gradually strangled the Iranian economy as US companies as well as foreign firms and countries that had been dealing with Iran were denied the ability to trade with the country, as a result of which Iran’s gross domestic product contracted by 3.9% in 2018, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.
However, the US sanctions have also affected the civilian population by undermining production, dampening economic growth and generating unemployment. Continued sanctions may also be instrumental in the country’s long-term financial crisis by inducing inflation, restricting imports and fueling currency crises.
It could well be that Iran, with its assured military capacities and support from proxies, may prefer a war with clear outcomes to a lingering crisis situation. The regime could also resort to war as a way to divert people’s attention from the financial crisis. In fact, the Trump administration’s policy of sanctions has emboldened Iran’s hardliners, who could now turn to people to demonstrate how their distrust of the US has been justified.
It is evident how the blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt since June 2017 enhanced the Qatari emir’s popularity and led a significant portion of the population to rally behind him. Continued economic sanctions only result in more centralization of power as governments increasingly control supplies of strategic commodities and the space for the private sector is squeezed. Further, if the past is any guide, sanctions cannot contain nuclear proliferation, as three of the four countries that have acquired nuclear weapons (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) since the Non-Proliferation Treaty entered force in 1970 were able to attain the objective while under sanctions.
There are many reasons the US must avoid a policy of continued sanctions that could result in a war with Iran. Any warlike situation is projected to be far more challenging for Washington compared with other regime-change operations in the Middle East region in the past. It is argued that Iran reportedly possesses increasingly sophisticated cruise missiles, an array of shorter-range anti-ship missiles and challenging air defense systems that make it capable of hitting US bases in its immediate neighborhood and disrupt oil supply routes. On the other hand its allies and proxies are projected to be capable of undercutting US strategic planning and interests far beyond the region.
The Shahab 1 ballistic missile, with a short range of 300 kilometers, and the Soumar cruise missile with a longer range of 2,500km are reportedly part of Iran’s wide-ranging missile-delivery capacity, which could strike targets anywhere in the Persian Gulf region, Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, parts of Southern and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Being confident of his country’s military capabilities, Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military aide to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is reported to have said: “The first bullet fired in the Persian Gulf will push oil prices above $100 [per barrel]. This would be unbearable to America, Europe and the US allies like Japan and South Korea.”
Indicating its military readiness to avert the pressures from mounting sanctions, Iran on the weekend made public a new “domestically produced” air defense system, the Khordad 15, which can trace six targets at the same time – including fighter jets, bombers and drones – and destroy them with missiles. Tehran revealed this on Sunday, shortly after urging European countries to uphold commitments made under the JCPOA, or face the consequences.
Defense Minister Amir Hatami was reported saying: “Iran will increase its military capabilities to protect its national security and interests, and it will not ask permission from anyone on this matter.”
It is time that the US establishes a connection between its policy of sanctions and objectives and bases them on hard facts instead of rhetoric. Sanctions policy must be flexible enough to respond to the degrees of accomplishment of the clearly defined objectives.