New US sanctions on Iran: 'Symbolic timing, but Iran deal won’t be derailed’

© Morteza Nikoubazl
The recent US sanctions against Tehran were a political move by the Obama administration to fend off pressure, and are very narrow, so they won’t have a serious impact on ordinary people in Iran, said Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies.

The US Treasury Department imposed new sanctions against 11 Iranian individuals and companies over Tehran’s ballistic missile program. The announcement came less than 24 hours after the announcement that international economic sanctions against Iran, relating to its nuclear program, were lifted.

RT: The lifting of sanctions was seen as a breakthrough for Iran, but now we have new sanctions less than 24 hours later. Does the timing surprise you?

Phyllis Bennis: No, this was clearly a political move by the Obama administration to fend off pressure from many: from Congress, from Israel and elsewhere, who were very unhappy with the implementation potential of the Iran nuclear deal. I think that this was expected quite soon. There was a certain amount of juggling because of the prisoner exchange that was under way. But these are very, very narrow sanctions in terms of what the impact will be; there will be virtually no impact on ordinary Iranians. Unlike the earlier sanctions that were lifted;  that were crippling the Iranian economy and created enormous problems for the ordinary civilian population in Iran - these are quite targeted on 11 individuals and a couple of small companies that have allegedly been involved in procurement of some kind of ballistic missile technology. I think that on both sides there is a lot of political posturing underway. Obviously it would have been better not to engage in such a provocative move right at this moment, when there is a great deal of excitement on both sides for a potential new relationship on the basis of the implementation of the Iran deal -  the prisoner exchange was a reflection of that. I don’t think this is enough to derail it, but it certainly does make it a little bit more difficult.

RT: Iran has released four US citizens in a prisoner swap. Is there a risk that these new sanctions could erode trust, and make it difficult to conclude such deals in future?

PB: I don’t think so. When there are prisoner exchanges, both sides have an interest in working it out. There is of course the danger the Iranian government may feel some pressure from hardliners in their parliament – just as the Obama administration is under pressure from the right wing in the Congress, from both parties – to engage in some kind of a tit-for-tat. Hopefully that won’t involve civilians... I think the prisoner exchange was a win-win situation, both sides gained. Citizens of both sides were released – that is very important and I don’t see any reasons to undermine that.

RT: Just how powerful is Iran's strategic missile capability, and why is it such a concern for the US?

PB: It is much more a political concern than it is strategic or military. Iran is one of a number of countries with missile technology that frankly for those of us who would prefer that there will be a weapon of mass destruction free zone across the Middle East, a missile free zone across the Middle East; I would prefer that no one could have. But as long as Israel has nuclear weapons, other countries are going to seek out other kinds of military technology. It is unfortunate. I think this is not something that is a direct threat to the US, but of course there is always the argument that Iran is supporting opponents of the US in the region.

RT: President Rouhani earlier said there would be an "appropriate response" to any further sanctions. What kind of reaction can we expect?

PB: The most important thing to the Iranian leadership is to provide the population with what they have been waiting for – which is an end to sanctions, reengagement with the sale of oil. They now are going to get back about, I think, it is between $80-100 billion of frozen oil money – this is Iranian oil funds, this is not a gift from anyone else, but money that they didn’t have access to, but will have access to.

There is an enormous pent up demand in the Iranian population for increasing daily life, for medical equipment, for ports, for civilian airlines – all of those things plus rebuilding for the very old and not rebuilt infrastructure...

Will some of this money be designated to military in Iran? I assume so, that happens virtually in every country...

US sanctions over Iran's ballistic missile test completely ‘different animal’

Robert Naiman, from the Just Foreign Policy think-tank said Washington’s latest sanctions against Iran are completely different from the international economic sanctions that are being removed.

RT: America's new punitive measures came hot on the heels of the UN lifting its sanctions and also a prisoner swap. Did the timing surprise you?

Robert Naiman: No, not really. The timing isn’t great from the point of view of symbolism...

First of all, the sanctions that have just been imposed – the US sanctions in response to the ballistic missile test - these are a completely different animal to the international economic sanctions on Iran that are being removed. There have been unilateral US sanctions on Iran for years...

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Iran can live for a long time with the new unilateral US sanctions. The thing that was really painful for Iran – was the international multilateral economic sanctions targeting the entire Iranian economy, their ability to export and sell oil, their ability to participate in the international financial system. These are the things that really hurt the Iranian economy and hurt the average person in Iran... The average person in Iran is not going to feel pain from these sanctions, unlike the economic sanctions. Shortages of lifesaving medicines in Iran are the result of the broad sanctions. These are two totally different things in terms of their scale, their scope, who they impact...

RT: 2016 will see US presidential elections. Do you expect a change of policy towards Iran?

RN: Well, it depends who it is. All the Republican presidential candidates, all the main ones have attacked the Iran deal, attacked diplomacy with Iran. The more the deal gets implemented – the harder it would be for any future president to reverse. But having said that, there are things that certainly many Republicans would like to do to disrupt the deal...

She [Hillary Clinton] does support the Iran deal and that is positive. On the other hand, she has pushed aggressive rhetoric about confronting Iran on other areas. She gave a major speech on this at the Brookings Institution. I personally worry that if Hillary were elected, I don’t think she would overturn the deal directly…but she could do things on the margin that would destabilize the relationship and potentially threaten the deal.

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