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US efforts to broaden sanctions on Iran won't work

The recent push to get China to cut its Iranian oil imports belies President Biden’s so-called ‘relentless diplomacy.’

Analysis | Middle East

The United States is at a crossroads with Iran as diplomatic talks to revive the nuclear deal stall. President Joe Biden stated recently that the administration is looking at “other options” beyond diplomacy with Iran, even as he promised “relentless diplomacy” in his first address to the United Nations. Amidst a report the Biden administration is reaching out to China to cut its imports of Iranian oil, it appears the United States is prematurely abandoning the diplomacy-first approach. But a return to sanctions wouldn’t serve U.S. interests.

As a means of pressuring Iran to cut a deal, this is likely counterproductive. Iran views U.S. diplomacy as a Trojan horse as it is. After all, the United States reneged on the nuclear deal first, and it wasn’t very long ago that Washington openly assassinated Iran’s top military leader. Iran’s wariness is hard to overstate. Trying to target one of its few trade lifelines is likely to confirm Iran’s suspicions of a two-faced U.S. policy and disincentivize returning to nuclear negotiations.

China, which depends on importing crude oil, is also unlikely to burn an economic and diplomatic bridge with Iran to curry favor with its biggest geopolitical rival. China is still fuming over the U.S.-Australian submarine deal last month, and unlikely to bend to U.S. pressure. This move is even less likely in light of recent Chinese-Iran economic agreements and Iran’s induction into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Moreover, increasing economic restrictions — or revving what the Trump administration dubbed “maximum pressure” — should not be plan B if Iran walks away from negotiations altogether or the two sides fail to reach an agreement. These sanctions have not achieved anything meaningful in preventing nuclear weapons development. The status quo doesn’t further U.S. interests — either maximalist or minimalist aims.

The sanctions campaign allegedly prompted Iran to initiate attacks on oil tankers, strikes against Saudi oil facilities, and proxy attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. The latter threat still hasn’t abated, and Iran’s kinetic response is an entirely predictable consequence of ill-conceived economic warfare.

Furthermore, Iran is enriching uranium well beyond the levels agreed to in the nuclear deal (though short of the levels needed for nuclear weapons). Tehran has likewise made technically insignificant though diplomatically incendiary forays into enriching uranium metal, a component in nuclear weapons, to put pressure on Washington.

But the sanctions campaign’s targets are largely divorced from Iran’s nuclear development, extending to virtually all nonmilitary industries. Civilians, not the government, are suffering under U.S. sanctions. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is unaffected; its budget has increased despite the sanctions campaign. In an ironic twist, U.S. sanctions are actually preventing ordinary Iranians from bypassing government-imposed internet restrictions. In other words, advocates of sanctions are indirectly empowering the very regime they oppose.   

Sanctions have likewise not hampered Iran’s proxy network, which is still operating in Syria and still shipping weapons and oil to Hezbollah. Putting pressure on Iran’s economy has not translated into any upset in its regional military activities.

Another unstated goal of the sanctions campaign is to exert enough pain to foment a popular uprising against the Islamic Republic. This has backfired in the extreme. The most militaristic elements of Iranian politics have consolidated power, due largely to sanctions undermining faith in more moderate alternatives.

Nor can the United States use sanctions to influence conditions inside Iran for the better. Using diplomacy as a means of coercion undermines Washington’s credibility to influence human rights, and it hampers NGOs’ ability to operate in Iran at all.

Sanctions are also a ticking time bomb. Overuse of sanctions erodes U.S. power. Likewise, Iran has been transitioning away from an oil economy and has diversified to prioritize its domestic industry. Iran has seen the writing on the wall from 30 years of intermittent sanctions: The United States is going to bring the pain anyway. The Iranians have taken this as a given and are adapting to this reality.

The United States doesn’t need to stay locked in a policy which doesn’t suit its interests and invites conflict with Iran and its proxies. Rather than reversing course on diplomacy and doubling down on the same sanctions which have proven ineffective, Washington should make the first overture: end a portion of the most onerous sanctions to provide a lifeline to the Vienna talks. President Biden called for “relentless diplomacy.” That means we shouldn’t relent.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the situation in Afghanistan, Monday, August 16, 2021 in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
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