From mid-August, the US has relentlessly pursued an extraordinary diplomatic initiative which has only meant defeat, isolation and humiliation for its president, secretary of state and diplomats. On 14 August, the US gave what a commentator has called a “toxic present” to the UN on its 75th anniversary when it presented a resolution before the UN Security Council (UNSC) calling for “snapback” on sanctions on Iran for violation of the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The “snapback”, if effective, would re-impose on Iran all the sanctions that it was subjected to before the finalisation of the JCPOA. These would include: suspension of all nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities; ban on import of items facilitating these activities and development of nuclear weapon delivery systems; ban on development of ballistic missiles, and the continuation of the arms embargo on Iran that, in terms of the JCPOA, is due to expire on 18 October. The resolution was defeated at the UNSC, with only the Dominican Republic backing the US in the 15-member body.
Undaunted by this setback, the US returned to the UNSC a month later and proclaimed that the “snapback” sanctions would be in force from mid-September. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that the sanctions would be enforced “as part of its [US’] responsibilities to enable peace, this time in the Middle East”. The Trump administration added that it would “impose consequences” on any UN member-state that did not comply with the sanctions reinstated by the US.
Responding to the absence of any support for the US, the US ambassador to the UN said dismissively: “We don’t need a cheering section to validate our moral compass.”
“Snapback” on sanctions
The US has based its approach on the “snapback” on sanctions on dubious legal basis. The US has argued that it is a “JCPOA participant” since it figures among the countries listed in the UNSC Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 that had approved the JCPOA; hence, it is entitled to initiate the “snapback” sanctions even if it has withdrawn from the JCPOA itself.
This argument has been dismissed out of hand by most commentators. As David Scheffer of the Council of Foreign Relations has pointed out, the UNSC resolution and the JCPOA are “intertwined”; the UNSCR has no independent existence. Thus, with the US having formally withdrawn from the JCPOA, it has no legal standing to trigger the snapback sanctions.
France, the UK and Germany issued a joint statement saying that the “purported notification” was “incapable of having any legal effect”. Russia said that the “illegitimate initiatives and actions of the United States … cannot have international legal consequences for other countries”. The Iranian spokesman called on the international community to stand unitedly “against these reckless actions by the regime in the White House”. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has called Pompeo a “mythomaniac” and a “pathological liar”.
A Russian diplomat referred to the US’ “obstinate delirium” that was leading it to humiliate itself. An official from the International Crisis Group said that in the Security Council there was “a degree of exhaustion with this [Trump] administration”.
However, the members of the anti-Iran coalition in the US are jubilant. The head of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), that is spearheading the campaign, believes that the sanctions will be effective given the status of the US dollar and US control over global financial markets, and that it is the secondary sanctions – companies that deal with Iran being denied access to US markets – that will ensure that the sanctions will work. As Mark Dubowitz of the FDD said: “Sanctions efficacy is about markets not politics, CEOs not diplomats.”
Other observers point out that, with major US sanctions on Iran already in place, there is very little scope to impose further restrictions on ties with Iran. However, a commentator with Carnegie Europe, Cornelius Adebahr, believes that Trump has embarked on a “stubborn pursuit of his own virtual reality” and that the US-initiated sanctions could have disastrous consequences, particularly if the US were to intercept Iranian ships or sanction countries dealing with Iran. Echoing this view, a former French diplomat, Michel Duclos says that the US “has created a parallel reality”.
Trump versus Iran
In the runup to the 2016 election, Trump was consistently hostile to the nuclear agreement with Iran, then viewed as one of the great achievements of the Obama administration. He said he would negotiate a better deal with Iran within four weeks of entering the White House. While no new deal has emerged, Trump has exhibited visceral hostility towards Iran: he withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018 and introduced over 700 sanctions in one day in August. Increasingly harsh sanctions, accompanied by vitriolic rhetoric and occasional military actions, have become the norm in US’ interactions with Iran.
The withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of sanctions on Iranian oil exports were initially explained as pressurising Iran to return to negotiations so that a “better” deal could be concluded. The scope of this new deal was broadened to include: eliminating Iran’s “malign” role in the region with its support for terrorist organisations; addressing its role in promoting regional instability by interfering in the domestic affairs of its neighbours, and halting its development of ballistic missiles that threatened regional security.
As Iran failed to respond, the US agenda shifted to include regime change in the country – it was hoped that the crippling sanctions would encourage popular dissatisfaction and bring down the government, while minority communities could be encouraged to undermine national unity through well-organised uprisings. None of this has been achieved.
Over the last year, the increasingly harsh sanctions, which have caused serious economic distress to the people, now seem to be disconnected with any US policy aims and have become an end in themselves – indicating a manic frenzy on the part of the US administration to cause the greatest possible harm to the people at large. These sanctions have now become an integral part of the US’ electoral compulsions as the president under pressure attempts to solidify his base made up of hard-right Republicans, Christian evangelists and sections of the Israel lobby.
The snapback sanctions have two other motives as well. One, they are intended to encourage Iran to take retaliatory action. This would give the US a reason for a sharp assault and boost Trump’s standing electorally. The other objective is to get Iran to violate the terms of the JCPOA so that the document becomes worthless and Joe Biden, even if elected, is unable to revive it.
As of now, Trump’s game-plan has not worked. Despite sustained US provocations, Iran has wisely decided to adopt a policy of restraint and avoid recourse to military action as the best way to prevent Trump’s re-election. Its leaders are prepared to wait for the US election results to mark the beginning of new options and opportunities in shaping bilateral ties.
There is little doubt that US sanctions have inflicted considerable harm on Iran and its people. Their affects have become even more deleterious during the pandemic. Since the re-imposition of US sanctions from 2018, Iran’s GDP has declined by 11% and average living standards have declined by 13%. In March this year, about two million more people were out of work. During the pandemic there has been a devastating human cost of the sanctions: according to Djavad Saleh-Isfahani of Brookings Institution, “had sanctions eased when the pandemic hit Iran, thousands of Iranian lives could have been saved”.
It is ironical that, despite such stringent US sanctions, many Americans believe that Iran has done better in the encounter with the US. At a recent hearing in the senate, when state department officials were touting fresh sanctions on Iran, senators noted that Iran was stronger in the region than four years ago: it now had far greater influence in Qatar, Yemen and Syria and attacks on the US military in Iraq in the first half of 2020 were more than in the same period last year. They also noted that the US had alienated its European allies, while the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran had actually isolated the US and brought Iran closer to Russia and China.
As the US is contemplating imposing new sanctions, this time on Iran’s financial sector to isolate the country completely from the global financial system, there are indications that the US’ sanctions regime could be fraying: it is being reported that Iran’s oil exports, that in 2018 had plummeted by 95% from 2.5 million barrels a day, have recovered to between 400,000 to 1.5 million barrels per day. Iran has found numerous creative ways to avoid scrutiny from US officials tracking ship-to-ship transfers.
Again, Iran’s non-oil foreign trade is increasing in value – it was $ 24.6 billion in March-August this year, mainly to China and the UAE, besides sale of gasoline and additives to Venezuela.
A month before the US presidential elections, the scenario in West Asia is fraught with uncertainty. Just a fortnight ago, the distinguished commentator on regional matters, Trita Parsi, had speculated that to boost Trump’s election prospects, the administration could provoke a military confrontation with Iran in an “October Surprise” that could include seizing Iranian tankers on the high seas or using the pretext of a planned terrorist attack or assassination engineered by Iran to mount an attack.
Given Trump’s aggressiveness in the face of a possible electoral setback, the ugly image that Iran has in large sections of the US’ political establishment, and the extraordinary animosity that Trump seems to nurse towards Iran, such a diabolical scheme cannot be entirely ruled out. However, Iran continues to remain low-key in its interaction with the US to avoid giving the excuse that the US is seeking. It also periodically displays some of its newly developed weaponry as a deterrent to any American misadventure in the Gulf.
Post-elections, regardless of who wins, both Trump and Biden will prioritise dialogue with Iran. Though a second term does often put a changed person into the White House, it is, at this point, difficult to anticipate a much-mellowed and restrained Trump. Trump will also have to clear a lot of negative baggage with Iran before anything constructive will emerge in the early months of his presidency.
This is not to suggest that there will be dramatic changes in US’ ties with Iran if Biden enters the White House in January. Biden has said that he would rejoin the JCPOA if Iran is in “strict compliance” with the agreement. But he has added that this would be the “starting point” for discussions to strengthen and extend the JCPOA, “while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilising activities”.
This caveat is not acceptable to Iran: Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said Iran will not negotiate a new deal and, further, that Iran should be compensated for the billions of dollars it has lost due to US sanctions. However, these positions could be reviewed once elections are done and a new leadership takes charge in Washington.
Going beyond the immediate and taking into account a broader regional context and a longer time-frame, we could see very important changes in the regional scenario that would upend many of the givens of our times. These would include:
one, decreased US involvement in the region as its security-provider and increased propensity to take recourse to diplomacy to address regional challenges;
two, a larger political role of Russia and China in West Asian affairs, often in tandem, as they heighten their global profile and pursue regionwide interests and projects; and,
three, a slow but sure geopolitical integration of Israel in West Asia; as Israel “normalises” ties with Gulf Arab and other regional nations, the latter should have a greater sense of security and confidence; this will enable them to commence engagement with Iran, with Russia and China, close to all the regional nations, playing the role of regional peace-makers.
This would provide the opportunity for the countries of the region to address matters that cause them concern and discuss how mutual confidence could be built. This engagement would, over time, culminate in regional security arrangements that would include all regional and extra-regional nations with a stake in West Asian security.
( Views are personal)
*The author is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.
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