Renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran are back in force, and the timing could not be better. The recent discovery of Iran’s attempt to use fake news to influence American, British, and Middle East audiences is just the latest reminder of why strong sanctions are essential to holding the regime accountable for its actions. With Iran’s economy increasingly faltering, the timing is right to step up economic pressure against the regime. Successfully securing a more unified international front on sanctions, while challenging thus far, will be critical to the Trump administration’s goal of ending Iran’s dangerous and belligerent behavior in the region and around the world.
The U.S. has been doing its part to hold Iran accountable, adopting what President Trump calls a “maximum pressure” strategy. Three months after the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal, the first round of re-imposed sanctions came into effect on Aug. 7, targeting the country’s gold and metal trade, auto industry, and financial activity related to its currency and ability to purchase U.S. dollars. A second set of measures come into force in November targeting Iran’s oil and energy sector, financial institutions, and shipping.
Further, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been making it clear that the U.S. will make sure the sanctions regime is upheld, and is undertaking a range of diplomatic meetings to get other states to agree. National Security Advisor John Bolton just completed a trip to Israel to discuss join efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program and activity in neighboring Syria. The U.S. has also just created an Iran Action Group to support economic pressure on Iran and diplomatic isolation of the Iranian regime.
The timing is right for sanctions to have an impact. If sustained and consistent, with the full support of the international community, they can significantly worsen Iran’s increasingly fragile economy and force the regime back to the negotiating table. Iran’s economy has suffered from high unemployment and inflation in recent months, as its currency has lost half its value since April. More recently, leading international businesses, including international banks and shipping companies critical to the functioning of the country’s economy, are already withdrawing operations. Public protests against the regime have become increasingly frequent. With the coming sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, economic growth is projected slow to 1.8 percent this year and contract by 4.3 percent next year. As Bolton said while in Israel, “The re-imposition of the sanctions… is already having a significant effect on Iran’s economy and on… popular opinion inside Iran.”
Indeed, the previous sanctions on Iran leading up to the JCPOA were effective in persuading the Iranian regime to come to the table and agree to modify its behavior in relation to its nuclear activities. These sanctions were effective because of the widespread support that existed for the measures from a wide number of states. This time around, however, it is proving more difficult to garner the same amount of international support. Support for the U.S. sanctions is needed from all states, as Iran’s dangerous behavior is a risk to all.
In withdrawing from the Iran deal in May, President Trump made clear that the JCPOA failed in limiting Iran’s destabilizing behavior that posed a global threat beyond the nuclear weapons issue, an indirect outcome of the agreement touted by President Obama at the time. This progress never came about. Instead, the Iranian regime has used the benefits of the JCPOA to extend its direct involvement in regional conflicts, increasing support for Hezbollah and other armed non-state actors around the region. The U.S. administration is correct to address this behavior, as Iran’s continued military expansion is going to have negative consequences on the region and impact wider global security, as demonstrated by recent Iran-supported Houthi strikes on shipping in the Red Sea.
It is critical to both regional and global security interests that the Iranian regime urgently changes its behavior, including its funding of military adventures around the Middle East and other destabilizing efforts that also target American, British, and Latin American audiences. The sanctions prior to the JCPOA proved that widespread cooperation in choking off the regime’s financial gains gets their attention and brings them to the table. Such cooperation is needed once again. In order to be effective, the purchasers of Iranian oil need to seek out alternative supplies. The number of international companies pulling out of Iran has to be accelerated. Iran’s access to material goods, gold, and currency has to be halted. Mahan Air, the airline that supports much of Iran’s destabilizing activities overseas, has to be prevented from using its routes to support Iran’s adventurism in the Middle East. And Iranian banks around the region need to be closed, or at least monitored closely to ensure the Iranian regime does not have easy access to funding.
Even though the U.S. is not yet receiving the same level of support for sanctions as it managed previously, continued emphasis on Iran’s spread of instability across the region should provide sufficient evidence to get other countries to change their ways. Iran’s behavior is causing unnecessary insecurity and unrest in the region, and for no real purpose. Iran is not facing any direct attack on its security, yet it continues to further its revolutionary agenda across the Middle East. Reimposing international sanctions that can starve the regime of access to foreign currency and finance is a daunting task, but a necessary one.