The US finds sanctions are no substitute for diplomacy with Iran

  • 27 Jun 2019

Experts believe Trump’s latest sanctions on Iran will have little impact because Washington has not articulated a clear exit policy for Tehran following the US violation of the nuclear deal.

US President Donald Trump displays an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2019. ( Carlos Barria / Reuters )

In its tete-a-tete with Iran, the Trump administration is trying to administer a carrot and stick approach - but has forgotten about the carrot part. And the tough talk has not impressed Iran.

President Donald Trump imposed fresh sanctions on Monday against the Iranian leadership, targeting the country’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other clerics, who do not have bank accounts, believing that Iran will come to the table with the US as a result of the pressure. 

However, experts believe the opposite will happen. After all, this is a country that has remained defiant for decades in the face of harsh sanctions since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. 

“The Ayatollah and most of the people closest to him don’t really have bank accounts in their names in Europe or outside of Iran,” said Amos Hochstein, a top former US official responsible for energy affairs under the Obama administration, indicating that sanctions cannot have any real effects on Iran.  

Hochstein thinks that US sanctions have failed to aim at anything tangible except inviting Iran to “the negotiating table” with “no articulated goal”, which cannot in itself be seen as a ‘carrot’ for the Islamic Republic. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has responded to US sanctions saying that they are “outrageous and stupid”, indicating the new move would ‘permanently’ close the door for diplomacy.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan June 15, 2019.(Reuters)

“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security,” an Iranian foreign ministry statement also said on Twitter. 

Hochstein explained: “There has to be some articulation of real goals, real lampposts that Iran can achieve or commit to, that would allow us to scale some of these back.” 

Do sanctions work?

Experts on sanctions have long argued that they are not an effective way to trigger regime change, citing Iran and Cuba as two major examples.

“It appears that many of these sanctions episodes ended prematurely, i.e. the sanctions were lifted after a couple of years even though the intended goal had not been achieved,” wrote Manuel Oechslin, a Dutch professor on international economics, in his 2014 study Targeting Autocrats: Economic sanctions and regime change. 

Oechslin's conclusion relies heavily on data collected and examined by Gary Hufbauer, a former top US treasury department official, who was one of the leading experts on US sanctions. 

In a previous TRT World interview, Hufbauer repeated his argument saying: “It’s far less than half of the time, [that] sanctions succeed to achieve their foreign policy goals.” 

Hufbauer examines 57 cases of US sanctions from 1914 to 2000 in a book titled Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, which is regarded as one of the most influential works on the subject. 

Out of 57 cases, he found only 12 cases, or 21 percent, being “partly successful”, while in 37 cases, which corresponded to 65 percent, sanctions could not even partly accomplish the defined objectives. 

A stick without a carrot - a cart before the horse  

Since the US violated the landmark nuclear deal by withdrawing from it, tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated. Trump’s erratic threats of different variations have resulted in Iranians either completely disregarding the harsh anti-Iranian rhetoric or just responded to him in kind. 

Iran shot down a US drone worth $110 million in the Gulf on May 20 after it was accused by Washington last week of attacking several oil tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

Still image taken from a video appears to show two tankers at sea, one of which has a large plume of dark smoke in the Gulf of Oman.(Reuters)

The Trump administration said it had decided to strike Iranian targets after the drone shooting, but later on he changed his mind, calling off American strikes and moved to talking about diplomacy. These flip flops have contributed to the notion that the White House is indecisive and doesn’t have a coherent plan for Iran.

Experts compared Trump’s indecisiveness with Obama, whom the current president previously criticised for his inaction against the Syrian regime in the wake of its alleged chemical attacks against civilians. 

But again, after his conciliatory tone following cancelling strikes last week, Trump immediately turned back to his confrontational rhetoric this week. 

“Any attack by Iran on anything American will meet with tremendous and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean destruction,” an angry Trump said on Tuesday after the drone shooting. 

The purported retrieved sections of a downed U.S. drone are shown on Iranian state television in an unidentified location, June 21, 2019 in this still image taken from video.(Reuters)

But on the same day, when asked about his latest Iran tweet, he twisted his stance characteristically saying that he had not dismissed diplomacy. 

The same day, that Trump threatened Iran, Mark Esper, the Acting Pentagon Chief made a call for diplomacy.

“The United States is not looking to go to war with Iran. Rather, we want to get to a diplomatic path,” Esper said on his way to Brussels for a NATO meeting. 

Trump’s unique understanding of diplomacy was summed up by his hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, who defended the disastrous US Iraqi invasion in 2003 and has also advocated strikes against Tehran. 

“The president has held the door open to real negotiations that completely and verifiably end Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, its pursuit of ballistic-missile delivery systems and support for international terrorism, and its other malign behaviour world-wide. All that Iran needs to do is walk through that open door,” Bolton said in Jerusalem, where he was holding talks with his Russian counterpart, regarding Iranian threats in the region. 

Bolton pretty much means that if Iran quits every prominent policy it pursues domestically and internationally, then the country will be qualified to hold talks with Washington. 

That’s very unlikely for Iran, which has recently warned that the country could shoot down more US drones if they violate Iranian airspace. 

Back in May, Trump first talked about “the official end of Iran”, then he characteristically backtracked from his statement saying that he is ready for negotiations. 

But again in June, he escalated his anti-Iranian stance, sending a large fleet into the Persian Gulf because Washington’s intelligence allegedly spotted increasing Iranian threats against US interests in the region. 

Now, the erratic president said that he has “unlimited time” to reach an agreement with Iran.