How Trump’s Iran Sanctions Might Empower the Regime

The president risks making the same mistake George H.W. Bush made with Saddam Hussein.

Donald Trump is anything but subtle. When he designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization on April 8, the timing was impeccable. One day before Israel’s election, the decision was a major boost to Benjamin Netanyahu, who went on to win a fifth term as prime minister. But it wasn’t a surprise on a policy level. It was merely the next step in the his  “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Then, on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration would fully impose new sanctions to prevent five countries from buying Iranian oil, furthering the nation’s economic isolation. Previously, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey were issued waivers on Iranian oil imports from sanctions Trump imposed in November. “We will no longer grant exemptions,” Pompeo declared in a press conference. “We’re going to zero—across the board.”

This all fits a pattern. Before becoming Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton told a Paris audience that the “declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullah’s regime in Tehran.” Since his West Wing ascendance, he has helped make American policy precisely that—even though no one in the administration will admit it.

Over the last year, Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed a series of tough sanctions on Iran. Trump officials have said they want to pressure the Iranians to negotiate a new pact with more stringent terms. But their actions don’t reflect a realistic, good-faith effort to achieve that end. In reality, they are bent on removing the Iranian leadership.

Trump’s harsh new sanctions, which will take effect on May 2, seem to be part of that plan. But it comes with a paradox: in his attempts to weaken Iran’s ruling clerics, he may actually strengthen them.

When George H.W. Bush orchestrated crippling sanctions against Iraq—four days after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990—it backfired. The U.S.-led campaign didn’t squeeze Saddam’s regime as Bush envisioned. It inflicted pain on ordinary Iraqis and empowered Saddam with his own people as he painted the Americans as the source of their misery.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani are not benevolent actors. They are oppressive autocrats who continue to test ballistic missiles and foment violent unrest in Iraq and Syria. Through the IRGC, they support terrorist entities like Hezbollah and Hamas. They are worth confronting strongly. But history shows that a devastating sanctions regime can have the opposite of its intended effect. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems to know or care little about history.

Before 1990, 61 percent of Iraq’s GDP relied on oil exports. But after Hussein invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, Bush organized a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions that put severe limits on Iraqi exports and imports, with the express intent of getting Saddam out of Kuwait and forcing him to reveal, and then eliminate, any nuclear weapons. Operation Desert Storm ultimately drove Saddam out of Kuwait, but when the sanctions hit, his government found a way to not only survive but prosper.

The Iraqi people, on the other hand, suffered greatly. The sudden imposition of sanctions left Iraq’s monolithic economic structure bleeding dry. A 2003 UNICEF report later confirmed that the ban on Iraq’s oil exports caused its currency to depreciate by over 5000%, putting a major strain on social services. In 1996, the U.N. launched an oil-for-food program to address the country’s humanitarian crisis. But Saddam funneled an estimated $10 billion from the initiative for his own profit, further denying Iraqis much-needed assistance.

The situation led to high rates of child mortality. The United Nations has estimated that 576,000 Iraqi children died as a result of the sanctions, which contributed to fatal rates of malnutrition. The country’s struggling GDP left sanitation systems in disarray and hospitals barely functioning. The U.N.’s report put the blame squarely on the U.S.-led sanctions, which it said “victimized the people of Iraq in the name of isolating Saddam Hussein.”

The Trump administration now risks going down the same path with Iran.

Trump’s combination of exiting the Iran nuclear deal, which it wasn’t violating, designating the IRGC as a terrorist group (the first time the U.S. declared a part of a foreign government as such), and the sanctions will make it impossible for Rouhani to engage with Washington without appearing weak inside Iran.

Ultimately, Trump’s pressure campaign will fortify Iran’s hardliners. The IRGC designation ignores the large role that the Guard plays for most Iranians as a conscription organization. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution said that many of those drafted into the IRGC “are not necessarily individuals who share its ideology or objectives.” But the move will make Iranians who served in the IRGC because of Iran’s compulsory military service affiliated with a “terrorist” entity, and they will likely be cut off from accessing medical supplies and drugs from American and European companies who won’t do business in Iran for fear of facing criminal penalties.

Along with the Trump administration’s blanket travel ban on all Iranian citizens, this action further antagonizes the Iranian public and enforces the narrative that the U.S. is their enemy.

Equally disconcerting, the IRGC stands to benefit from the sanctions. Jeff Prescott, executive director of National Security Action and a former Obama administration official, said the IRGC controls much of Iran’s black market—which has “popped up because of the restrictions” already imposed. “There’s a real risk of miscalculation that comes with taking this kind of step,” Prescott told me.

One Iranian parliamentarian estimated that the IRGC’s oil-smuggling revenue specifically helped it make roughly $12 billion per year. The organization also takes advantage of Iran’s coastline to bring in other items, like alcohol. Sanctioning Iran’s economy forces even more economic activity to go underground, where the IRGC has a much stronger hold on trade.

The ghost of Saddam already looms over the U.S. government. Earlier this month, twelve senators—Kentucky’s Rand Paul was the only GOP among them—introduced legislation that would prevent the White House from engaging Iran militarily without congressional approval. They are concerned that Trump is planting the seeds of an eventual armed confrontation, and that he might repeat the mistake that George W. Bush made in going to war with Iraq.

For now, at least, military escalation appears unlikely. Maloney told me that Iran has been careful to contain its ground forces and affiliated militias in theatres where the U.S. also has boots on the ground, like Syria. Tehran is also conscious of the fact that America is headed into another election. It may simply be waiting out the Trump years. Indeed, several leading 2020 Democratic hopefuls have called for re-entering the Iran deal should they be elected.

In the meantime, however, Trump is going down the same road Bush 41 travelled to try and weaken a tyrranical Middle East regime.

To be sure, sanctions can work in certain circumstances. The Obama administration deployed them to great effect in 2013 to get Iran to the negotiating table. But there was a reason Obama was under such a rush to clinch the accord by 2015: he knew that sanctions invariably lose their effectiveness over time.

Time, however, is not the issue with Trump’s sanctions. It’s the circumstances. He may have thought there was an opening when there were mass protests against the government’s economic policies from December 2017 to January 2018, but his bellicose posturing has squandered that opportunity.

Instead, he’s made it so Iran’s mullahs can pin the country’s economic woes on an American bogeyman. His IRGC designation and new oil sanctions will only exacerbate this problem, inflicting more hardship on the Iranian people than the despots who oppress them.

Bush 41’s anti-Saddam sanctions boomeranged. If America does the same thing with Tehran, the consequences could be dire: the rogue nation currently has troops and affiliated militias scattered across the region, and it still hopes to one day acquire a nuclear arsenal. Trump says he wants to change the character of Iran. But everything he’s doing is emboldening the country’s leaders who made it such a toxic problem to begin with.

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Tabitha Sanders

Tabitha Sanders is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.