Now that Trump has violated the terms of the Iranian nuclear agreement, the big question is: what comes next? The U.S. is in the process of reinstating sanctions on Iran, but as Nicholas Miller documented, there were three things that brought Iran to the bargaining table during the Obama administration.
Three factors made the 2015 concessions possible: an uptick in Iranian nuclear provocations, a powerful multilateral coalition to stop those and domestic receptivity in Iran. None of those conditions exists now.
The effectiveness of the previous sanctions was based on the powerful multilateral coalition that the Obama administration pulled together due to evidence that Iran was, in fact, developing nuclear weapons. At the moment, that is no longer the case. Previously our allies in Europe, as well as Russia and China, were willing to join us on imposing sanctions due to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, but they have no urgency to do so now.
As Miller points out, the previous sanctions regime was the most powerful in the history of nonproliferation efforts.
In June 2010, the Security Council passed Resolution 1929, which imposed not just an arms embargo on Iran but also, for the first time, broader financial restrictions. After obstructing strong measures in the past, Russia finally agreed to impose enhanced sanctions…
Over the next few years, the United States and European Union tightened the noose on the Iranian economy. The European Union banned investment in much of Iran’s oil and gas industry, imposed an oil embargo and cut off Iran from the SWIFT financial network. Meanwhile, the United States imposed sweeping secondary sanctions, which effectively cut off entities that did business with Iran or did not reduce purchases of Iranian oil from using the U.S. financial system.
It is those secondary sanctions that will now come into play as our allies attempt to determine their response to the president’s violation of the agreement. Will the Trump administration enforce those sanctions against our European allies and/or their companies that continue to do business with Iran?
According to the Weekly Standard, a memo drafted by senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Richard Goldberg “recommends firing a warning shot by imposing sanctions on the ‘first bank or company found to be in violation of U.S. sanctions.'” Trump’s new ambassador to Germany tweeted this:
As @realDonaldTrump said, US sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) May 8, 2018
Michael Tockuss, head of the German-Iran Chamber of Commerce Association, said, “We should not accept that American law is applicable for third countries and for companies outside the US.”
The Trump administration will soon face a dilemma. Unilateral sanctions against Iran will have little to no impact. But are they willing to bully our allies by imposing secondary sanctions to cut off their ability to do business with the United States? Given that Trump’s approach to everything rests on bullying, I suspect he will do just that. This country’s overwhelming economic power might lead to submission in some quarters. But at what cost? It will obviously further alienate our allies and weaken our position permanently.
“If this administration goes forward and starts to impose secondary sanctions on our European allies … that will only further drive a wedge between the United States and its closest allies,” Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday. “What made these sanctions so effective is that the world was in unison on them, and that will no longer be the case.”
Schiff added that the reimposition of sanctions would “accelerate a drive” to develop alternative financial messaging services, which he said would in turn “undermine the U.S. ability to use sanctions to avoid conflict in the future.”
Donald Trump is a classic bully who thinks that submission is a sign of respect. That is only the case with sycophants. For everyone else, bullying eventually creates blowback via direct or passive aggression. Even if the president’s course doesn’t lead to war with Iran, this country will be paying the price for his bullying long after he is gone.