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Washington’s whack-a-mole sanctions on Iran are wearing thin as Tehran finds new ways to dodge pressure

Tom Fowdy
Tom Fowdy

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

Washington’s whack-a-mole sanctions on Iran are wearing thin as Tehran finds new ways to dodge pressure
Despite the Trump administration’s attempts to further coerce the Islamic Republic in its dying days, Iranian oil exports have been growing, giving the nation an ever-increasing window of escape from American constraints.

On Wednesday, the United States slapped sanctions on companies based in China and the United Arab Emirates, saying they have violated unilateral sanctions on buying Iranian oil. It’s not the first time Washington has done this, and probably will not be the last as it aims to squeeze Tehran in President Donald Trump’s last days in a bid to make it difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to let them off the hook.

However, it’s not going smoothly. Despite American pressure, exports of Iranian oil have been going up again and, in the midst of the presidential election result, its currency value has too. Obviously not to the levels they were before the sanctions, but certainly to a point where Tehran might be led to calculate “the worst is over” and, for all the economic turmoil of 2020, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

This spells inevitable defeat for Trump’s Iran policy, and pours further scorn on the idea that Biden will be committed to continuing it, never mind pushing harder for better terms than in the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Tehran has suffered, but pressure has long since peaked, its uranium enrichment levels represent its key leverage and it has no reason to capitulate anything new in negotiations, such as, for example, its ballistic missile programs. As a result, its struggle against the US-led order in the Middle East is bound to continue, whether Biden reapproaches with the JCPOA or not.

“We want Iran to act like a normal country,” Mike Pompeo said many times throughout his tenure in office. What exactly does that mean? Notwithstanding the patronizing and ultimately misleading remarks from the soon-to-be former secretary of state, the Trump administration ultimately envisioned crippling and pacifying Iran into a state which was subservient to US foreign policy.

Withdrawal from the JCPOA for America was never really about Iran “violating the deal,” which it had not. It was fueled by geopolitical considerations which allowed Tehran to pursue its rivalry against Israel and Saudi Arabia unchecked, with both having strongly lobbied against it. The subsequent sanctions represented the typical Trump strategy of attempting to acquire as much leverage against an opponent as possible in the bid to force them to capitulate to unilateral terms.

However, it hasn’t worked. Iran has suffered deeply owing to the measures and the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, but its leadership has shown no interest in changing course. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the American sanctions lack legitimacy, the JCPOA is an international agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council, and the US is the one who broke it, not Tehran. Whilst the EU and UK have wavered under US pressure, Iran still has two major powers, China and Russia, who back the original deal and subsequently ensured that UN sanctions cannot be applied to it again. This gives Iran negotiating space against the upcoming administration.

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Secondly, Iran believes that pressure peaked long ago, no matter how many new measures the US tries to slap on. Washington failed to get the UN arms embargo renewed in October which allows Iran to legally start exporting weaponry again, and its buyers won’t care too much about UN sanctions, especially sub-state groups fighting in Syria and Yemen. In addition, it still has many oil customers who want to find ways around American buyers, including China, Venezuela and others. It is very open about its ambition to expand oil production back up to 4.5 million barrels a day next year, knowing full well Biden may not have the political will or interest to push as hard as Trump.

Given this, Tehran isn’t desperate to sign up to unilaterally dictated American terms which aim to end its ballistic missile programs and broader activities in the Middle East. Its increased uranium enrichment level is the only bargaining chip it really needs, because nobody wants a nuclear Iran, and the outcome cannot be as decisive as 2015. 

The Trump administration’s premise is similar to China’s logic, that slapping more and more sanctions on Tehran will cement its position and legacy on this issue. But this seems more like “throwing something at the wall until it sticks” than an actual strategy. Unilateral sanctions can be initially sharp, but anyone familiar with US designations is well aware that they need constant refining and recalibrating as they lose their edge over time as the target seeks to evade them. Therefore, the political will behind them has to be constant. Even if Biden wishes to sustain the Trump sanctions, but shift priorities and intensity, the outcome is still the same. Time is on Iran’s side.

In light of this, there should be no mistake about the fact that Iran is not going to be brought to heel under American pressure. Its confrontation with US allies via its proxies across the Middle East will continue. The Trump administration’s policy of attempting to unilaterally suffocate Iran has failed and, even though the White House is racing to cement this in place, its days are numbered. Tehran recognizes this, and whilst its economy is still hobbling, it sees the tide is turning in its favor and an effective window of escape without surrendering anything. It’s all uphill from here.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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