‘Sanctions are Coming’ – the words printed on a Game of Thrones styled poster at Trump’s recent cabinet meeting. Trump had utilized this reference to the popular TV series before, notably when the U.S. pulled out of what Trump referred to as the “stupid deal.” Trump was referring to the Iran nuclear deal – otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a deal which U.S. European allies – France, Germany and the U.K. – had, and still do, support.
Though perhaps more shocking than the U.S. withdrawal from the deal was Trump’s declaration for an unleashing of economic sanctions on Iran. This was not only against the advice of European leaders but critically against statements by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran had complied willingly and was in full adherence to the terms under the JCPOA. The response to such sanctions had seen Iran declare its ambition to restart its uranium production – something European powers had so strongly sought to prevent due to its connection to nuclear weapons. This prompted European leaders to agree to new terms with Iran to explore greater economic partnership around U.S. sanctions.
The imposition of economic sanctions is a popular response to external threats to peace and security under the Trump administration. Trump’s extended sanctions on Russia in late 2018 were proposed in response to the various violations of human rights in the country. The irony with this, however, is that economic sanctions often violate human rights. In a sense, sanctions share an uncanny resemblance to the tactics of medieval siege warfare – a technique that was designed to target the provision of enemy supplies and subsequently encourage starvation to force a military victory. Similarly, economic sanctions are designed to strangle the recipient into submission. In Iran, the civilians have felt the brute force of this age-old technique, inevitably violating economic, social and cultural human rights. Referring to the sanctions as the “toughest ever,” the U.S. intends to force Iran into signing a new ballistic missile agreement.
The impacts of U.S. sanctions in Iran have been widespread: unemployment, inflation, violence and sporadic protests. However, Iran refused to give in to U.S. demands in November 2018 and is still refusing to do so in 2019. This is also the approach given by its neighbour, Iraq, who maintains close ties to the country despite warnings by the U.S. In a statement on 3rd January, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali al-Hakim stressed that the country is under no obligation to comply with sanctions that are “unilateral, not international.” The response to this resistance has been mixed, with some members of the Iranian population chanting the words “Death to America” – a reference to the, albeit ironic, siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in protest of the sanctions in 1979. This is hardly the feelings of all the population, however. On the same day as the statement by the Iraqi Foreign Minister, the Iranian Health Minister resigned over the dire economic situation in the country.
Trump’s revival of the poster displaying the text ‘Sanctions are Coming,’ despite the known impacts of economic sanctions on innocent civilians, is not only insensitive but ineffective in achieving Trump’s desired outcome, as evident with Iran’s response. So why have Trump’s confrontational sanctions failed? By adopting a new way of looking at the issue, this can be explained by a variety of reasons. Firstly, Iran is surrounded by neighbouring countries that have expressed their willingness to continue trading with the country. Iraq has declared its readiness to evade U.S. sanctions, despite warnings by the U.S. of punishment for those who trade with Iran. Secondly, sanctions often wield various unintended consequences of their actions. Whilst U.S. sanctions aimed to target over 700 individuals and industries, it is inevitable that a lot more people will feel the impact of this. UN expert Idriss Jazairy highlighted this by stating, “These unjust and harmful sanctions are destroying the economy and currency of Iran, driving millions of people into poverty.” He further went on, with the backing of members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to emphasize the disapproval and illegitimacy of the U.S. decision to reimpose sanctions, “International sanctions must have a lawful purpose, must be proportional, and must not harm the human rights of ordinary citizens, and none of these criteria are met in this case.” This is reinforced by statements likening that from the IAEA that defend Iran’s contribution to the JCPOA and by statements from the UNSC that condemn sanctions by the U.S. As a result, the U.S. has become the target of condemnation of various countries and international organizations. This helps support Iranian’s defiance and ability to maintain a strong stance despite the damaging impacts of the sanctions.
Going beyond the imposition of sanctions, however, and by offering a different way of looking at the issue, one can see a common theme; U.S. economic dominance. It has constantly been stressed that those who seek to avoid U.S. sanctions will face dire consequences. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated, “Any financial institution, company or individual who evades our sanctions risks losing access to the U.S. financial system and the ability to do business with the U.S. or U.S. companies.” Likewise, John Bolton has argued, “we do not intend to have our sanctions evaded by Europe or by anyone else.” By observing these statements, it becomes clear that Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA is less to do with non-proliferation or regime change in Iran and instead more to do with the economic influence the U.S. has over its European allies and other countries in the world. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and attitude towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are similar examples of the U.S. challenging the power politics of European powers.
As such, it becomes apparent that the first step in peacefully addressing the issue is to find common ground with the interests of the U.S., Iran and the European powers committed to the JCPOA. It is apparent that, be this through Trump’s military or economic presence in the world, that the U.S. is concerned by security in the Middle-East. Though in obtaining this security, the imposition of sanctions is hardly an effective long-term solution to achieve this. Former President Obama’s ‘Prague Agenda’ similarly had this long-term solution problem. In what can be described as optimistically contradicting, he pledged a “world without nuclear weapons,” though accompanied this with a realistic understanding that such a goal would not be achieved promptly; “perhaps not in my lifetime.” Understanding Iran’s position and arguable dependency on missiles in the region, it becomes apparent that more achievable limits could be struck upon the use of such missiles.
Such dialogue is especially important to disarm the conflicting dichotomy of responses by the two countries, whereby Trump has declared he has “no plans” to meet with Iranian representatives and with Iran stating, “this is a psychological war, we won’t allow Trump to win.” A more efficient and encompassing dialogue between European powers, Iran and the U.S., with a possible independent mediator, such as the UN, could not only solve a short-term solution to the tension over missiles and nuclear facilities but could see long-term progress. As such, with extensive dialogue seeking to understand the different views of countries and subsequently allowing for compromise, Iran will be able to improve its relations with the U.S. and EU countries. This will set a tone in addressing future issues and would be a step towards realizing realistic goals rather than unrealistic ones, such as Trump’s demand for Iran to give up all its missiles.
Another target for diplomatic talks exists beyond the EU. China boasts its strong trading relationship with Iran, declaring its continued support to the country despite U.S. sanctions. Russia, on the other hand, has claimed to do “everything necessary” to support the JCPOA, namely by protecting trade between the two countries. Whilst these two members of the UNSC are pivotal in keeping the JCPOA alive and therefore ensuring peace and security in the Middle-East, it is important not to aggravate a political rivalry between members of the UNSC. Instead, members of the UNSC – China, Russia, France, the U.K. and the U.S. – must use their influence and responsibility to provide effective dialogue, simultaneously providing an effective example for the world.
Lastly, despite the intentions of sanctions in Iran, the U.S. must make sure it does not deliberately refuse humanitarian aid entry to the country. Whilst U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contested this by arguing that the sanctions were necessary for the security interests of the U.S., this is an example of where leaders should seek to address the shared concerns of the countries involved. Limiting the missiles of Iran while simultaneously ensuring protection in the Middle-East is a simple example that would address these shared concerns of both Iran and the U.S. Humanitarian action should not fall into this political narrative however and, echoing the decisions of the International Court of Justice, should not intentionally target innocent civilians.
Sanctions impose great economic hardship on most of the population. It violates basic human rights and encourages violence and instability through grievances, arguably causing instability rather than its intended stability. In the middle of all this top-down defiant rhetoric by Iran and the U.S., the bottom-up voices of the locals are being neglected. It is not acceptable that the U.S. seeks to force decisions upon countries at the expense of innocent civilians. The key to ensuring global peace and security is not to agree on every decision suggested by every nation but to comprise and seek to encompass the different perspectives of different actors, including that of the locals.
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