US sanctions on Iran stand as an obstacle to any constructive engagement in West Asia

The relentless maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration against Iran which is continuing even after his electoral loss will be tough for a Biden administration to reverse, assuming there is the will to do so

November 22, 2020 by Abdul Rahman

Last week, the US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran, this time targeting a charitable organization, the Foundation of the Oppressed, with links to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei. On Monday, November 16, the New York Times reported that US president Donald Trump had consulted aides about the possibility of striking at Iran’s nuclear facilities. These moves are only the latest in the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran which has brought the region perilously close to deadly war.

Trump may have lost the election but he has been busy moving foreign policy in a further extreme direction. While Biden has expressed his desire to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, he has nonetheless suggested he wants to introduce amendments to the deal. This proposition is likely to be rejected by Iran which has said it will go back to the deal if the US withdraws sanctions.

Trump’s Iran policy has been closely linked with the outgoing administration’s reading of the politics of the region in which Iran is seen as a challenger to the dominance of the US. Biden will not be able to get any concession from Iran on that front. Moreover, Trump’s Iran policy has been closely linked with and influenced by its close allies in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies who would like to maintain the status quo.

The long list of US sanctions on Iran

The Trump administration has imposed multiple rounds of sanctions against Iran since its unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The sanctions are both political and economic in nature, ranging from a ban on the sale of Iranian oil and gas in the international market to banning several Iranian military and financial institutions.  

The first round of sanctions, effective since November 2018, targeted key sectors of the Iranian economy such as energy exports, shipping, insurance and commerce. In order to bring the oil and gas exports from Iran to “zero”, the US threatened secondary sanctions against countries buying Iranian oil and gas. Using its dominance in global financial transactions, it has been able to impose its unilateral sanctions crippling Iran’s export revenues. In October this year it extended these sanctions and included a large number of entities and individuals in Iran’s petroleum sector, including the minister of petroleum, Bijan Zangeneh.

The US has also designated Iranian Quds force as a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019. Its commander, Qassem Soleimani, was assassinated by the US in a drone attack in January 2020 in Iraq. The US has also sanctioned sections of Iranian armed forces and military commanders.    

The US treasury department imposed financial sanctions on Iran’s banking sector as well. The sanction list includes all major banks in the country. The US identifies the entire Iranian financial sector as an entity that funds the government’s “malign activities”, meaning terror funding.

In order to prevent technological collaborations, the US has also withdrawn sanction waivers to Russian, Chinese and European firms which were allowed to work at certain Iranian nuclear sites in spite of the sanctions on Iran in July this year.  

Among the top leaders, the treasury department of the US has also targeted Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif claiming that he is “acting on behalf of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.” Following the sanctions, Zarif cannot travel to the US or any other country outside Iran without inviting secondary sanctions against the host countries.

Iran is the worst COVID-19 affected Middle East country. When in April 2020 Iran sought a USD 5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on its economy the US announced its objections and alleged that such money will be used by Iran to fund terrorist activities in the region.

Apart from these unilateral sanctions, the US also tried to impose a snapback against Iran in August-September this year in the UN security council. If successful, it would have brought back all international sanctions imposed on Iran before the nuclear deal in 2015. The attempt failed due to the reluctance of the other signatories of the deal to abandon it under the US pressure.

There is no denying that American sanctions have affected the Iranian economy and its ability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic severely. However, Iran has shown an unprecedented resilience by diversifying its exports, choosing new partners such as Venezuela and building strong ties with China and Russia and Turkey. The most important part is that despite all the hardships the Iranian government has refused to concede to what the Trump administration wanted. Iranians have categorically asserted an independent foreign policy.

The US allies in the region

Though Trump was Israel’s man in the White House, Joe Biden too has hinted at the continuation of pro-Israeli and pro-Saudi policies after taking office. In his opinion piece in the CNN on September 13, he categorically stated that America will closely work with “Israel to ensure it can defend itself against Iran and its proxies” and “push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region”. This will be very much the basis of the US’s Iran policy marking a continuity with the core of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign.”

The Biden administration will have very limited options to do otherwise. Objections to the nuclear deal with Iran had very little to do with Iran’s capacity to make a nuclear bomb. Trump’s objections to the deal as “one-sided” and harmful for US and its allies in the Middle East region, were re-articulations of the Israeli objections raised at the time of the signing of the deal under Obama’s last year in office. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia had argued that the deal “gives” Iran a free hand to pursue its regional policies including its interventions in Syria and support for Hezbollah and Houthis in Lebanon and Yemen. Trump tried to consolidate its allies in the region through the so-called Abraham Accords portraying it as a counter strategy against Iran. Since Biden does not disagree with Trump’s objections and wants to maintain his pro-Israel and anti-Iran policies in the region, he would have to look hard for justifications for going back to the deal which was signed when he was the vice president. It will be difficult also because there are no real reasons for Iran to concede anything more to the Biden administration when it had denied similar proposals by the Trump administration.

There are no legal hurdles if the Biden administration really decides to undo the sanctions and go back to JCPOA and the situation before May 2018. Most of the sanctions imposed by Trump can easily be lifted by executive orders issued by the president’s office. However, it will require a lot of political will to do so given the complexities of imperialist policy making and Iranian resilience.