The Pitfalls of New Sanctions on Iran
The Pitfalls of New Sanctions on Iran: Prospects for the Future
There is little doubt that the hardliners in Tehran will use the new sanctions to attempt to derail President Rouhani’s detente policy.
Introduced in the Senate on March 23, Congress voted 98-2 for new sanctions on Iran known as “Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017” (CIDAA-2017) which directs the Departments of State, Treasury and Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence to submit a strategy every two years for deterring conventional and asymmetric Iranian activities that threaten the United States and its key allies in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.
If signed into law, the CIDAA-2017 imposes new restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program, more restrictions on arms sales and also aims to penalize Iran for its alleged sponsorship of terrorism and human rights violations. The bill introduces freezing assets and sanctions against any individual that contributes to Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear programs, or the sale or transfer of specified military equipment or the provision of related technical or financial assistance to Iran. Furthermore, the bill blocks the Revolutionary Guards’ properties and sanctions its affiliated foreign individuals and prohibits transactions with any Iranian individual who supports or has ties to terrorism. In other words, the CIDAA-2017 sanctions the entire Revolutionary Guards organization as a terror group.
Moreover, the CIDAA-2017 sanctions legislation imposes asset blocking measures against any individual responsible for killings, torture, or other forms of human rights violations in Iran. In order for the bill to become a law, the measure would also have to pass the House of Representatives and be signed by US President Donald J. Trump.
The anti-Iran measures come following the February 2017 ban on banking transfers by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) which was imposed on 25 Iranian individuals and companies, among them the Iran-based company Matin Sanat Nik Andishan, and three associated Chinese companies which supported or contributed to Iran’s ballistic missile program by supplying missile-applicable items. The OFAC also designated two senior Iranian defense officials, Morteza Farasatpour and Rahim Ahmadi who are serving as the Director of Iran's Shahid Bagheri Industries Group (SBIG) and coordinator of missile flight tests with Iran's Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO)- for their involvement in Iran's ballistic missile program.
Iran advocates in Washington called the CIDAA-2017 “ill-advised” and cautioned Congress against moving forward with this bill because, they argue, it’s a move that will bring Washington one step closer to a potential war with Iran. They argue that these new measures against Iran could put the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), at risk, “that is not worth taking.”
There is little doubt that the hardliners in Tehran will use the new sanctions to attempt to derail President Rouhani’s detente policy, most notably his approach to normalizing relations with the United States. They accused Rouhani of “adherence to the nuclear agreement at any price,” while the United States does not honor its JCPOA commitments. Even there are voices in the conservative camp that accuse Rouhani of secretly reaching an agreement with the Americans to postpone sanctions to after the presidential elections so that he can manage to win for the second term.
Kayhan newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accused Rouhani of retreating too much to American pressures and surrendering much of the nuclear program for no economic benefits. Kayhan sarcastically noted “After the deal was signed, the government officials called the JCPOA ‘a great victory,’ ‘a rising Sun,’ ‘the miracle of the century,’ ‘the biggest achievement in the history of Iran,’ ‘sign of the great powers surrendering to the will of the nation,’ and ‘a victory bigger than the victory of Khorramshahr.’” Kayhan also reminded the Government of its promises which the JCPOA will lift all the sanctions imposed on Iran; “they also emphasized that all of the sanctions including arms embargo will be lifted (not suspended) immediately the day after the agreement is signed and no new sanctions will be imposed, but it seems everything is vice versa, with the exception that we have lost much of our nuclear power.”
The Daily went on by noting that “unfortunately the Rouhani government with its passive policy of ‘preserving the JCPOA at any price’ vis-à-vis ‘frequent breach of the deal on the part of the Americans’ caused anti-Iranian sanctions to take broader dimensions daily. America’s impudence is increasing day by day, while the Rouhani Government only pushes back by symbolic measures like sending emails, tweeting and complaining to them by sending polite letters.”
Alef.ir, another conservative site accused Rouhani of compromising on Iran’s national security and noted that the new sanctions will extend the costs of the JCPOA to the national security of the country; “the new American sanctions will increase the risk of foreign investment in Iran, limit Iran’s economy, and put Iran’s security in danger by targeting Iran’s defense section.” Alef proceeds by saying that the United States wants to damage Iran’s sovereignty, “a plan in which some inside Iran will welcome” pointing to President Rouhani’s policy of normalizing Iran’s relations with the West. Then the conservative site sarcastically predicted, “in the future, there will be [some people] inside the country who would voice against our defense policies and would want to limit the missiles program and regional activities in exchange for sanctions relief.”
Furthermore, if approved which is highly possible in part due to the broad bipartisan support and strong desire in Washington to pressure Iran, the new sanctions will play into the hands of hardliners and will place the Rouhani government in a weaker position. Sanctions advocates argue that new sanctions will force Iran to curtail its missile program just as they forced it to surrender its nuclear program, an assumption that seems to be questionable. The complex causality of economic hardship raises questions about the repeatability of the sanctions experiment in Iran. In principle, calibrating economic pain through sanctions should be easy to repeat, but it is not entirely clear whether the economic hardship which brought the nuclear deal to fruition can be reproduced in the future with regard to Iran’s ballistic missiles program.
Ballistic missiles are part of Iran’s self-defense program and sanctioning the entire missile program would violate Iranian right to self-defense, notably as it faces adversaries armed with cutting-edge ballistic hardware operating under an American military umbrella. The economic statecraft may change the tactics of the Iranian Regime, but will not necessarily dissuade it from pursuing its missile goals since it is the regime’s only option to deter any potential adversary from attacking Iran.
It should be taken into consideration that the political system of Iran harbors factors which make a reversal of the JCPOA possible under specific circumstances. The hardliners have not accepted the nuclear setback and have promised to reverse the nuclear deal, and are even less keen on Iran joining the community of nations. Moreover, the Revolutionary Guards, a vast parastatal organization which oversees running the ballistic missiles and nuclear programs, has enough resources to renew the illicit nuclear production. This time round, the Principalists may even win the public debate should the administration of Donald Trump and the Congress impose new sanctions.