How Effective is Trump’s Iran Policy?
How Effective is Trump’s Iran Policy?
A little more than a week ago, we were all convinced that war with Iran was imminent. I wrote not too long ago that I doubted President Trump – who campaigned on isolationism and non-interventionism – would want to start a military conflict with Iran or any other country just as the 2020 presidential campaign was beginning. I was right, but the administration’s Iran policy leaves a lot to be desired.
Just as our military assets were ramped up and ready to go, Trump canceled the retaliatory attack and opted to impose further sanctions on Iran, its leaders, and their assets.
[Iran’s Supreme Leader] Khamenei oversees a vast network of corporate and financial assets worth $200 billion, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies estimates. Trump signed an executive order this week giving the Treasury Department broad powers to sanction Khamenei, those tied to him, and anyone doing business with him.
“Today’s actions follow a series of aggressive behaviors by the Iranian regime in recent weeks, including shooting down of U.S. drones,” Trump said Monday. “The supreme leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible of the hostile conduct of the regime. He’s respected within his country. His office oversees the regime’s most brutal instruments including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
I’m usually a big sanctions fan. A designation by the US Treasury usually means that the foreign entity is cut off from the US dollar – the world’s reserve currency – and is prohibited from accessing the US financial system in any way or doing business with the US. It’s an effective and generally streamlined tool. The President signs an Executive Order, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) can designate entities under that EO if those entities have been found to have engaged in behavior described in the EO. Once the designation happens, bye-bye dollar.
However, given the existing sanctions evasion mechanisms in the world today, I would say that the sanctions tool may have reached a point of diminishing returns without the support of our allies. This is where the President’s policy toward Iran and his relationships with our western allies are lacking.
No doubt, I think the President did the right thing by canceling the military strike in response to the downing of our unmanned drone. I’m not so much worried about the strike killing innocent Iranians, because the counterstrike would have focused on military targets, such as radars and missile batteries, but the attack would not have been proportional in response to the Iranians shooting down a piece of equipment, and it would have allowed Iran to further claim the US as an aggressor and itself as a victim.
Further, can you imagine what would have happened had the strike taken place?
This would have been a bad idea.
So the next tool in the bag is sanctions, and the President slapped some pretty tough sanctions on the Supreme Leader’s assets and front companies last week, allowing Treasury to seize any US-based assets connected with Khamenei and target any foreign financial institution conducting business with him.
Good stuff, if Khamenei’s foundations, businesses, and charities actually did business in the US or with US companies. If they have no US-based assets (and chances are they probably have very little, given that Iran has been under some kind of designations for decades), then the designation is largely symbolic. If they are accessing financial systems in the West, and our western partners are working with us to prevent Iran’s malign activities, the designations would probably be fairly effective. If our financial institutions in the West value access to the US dollar more than they need Iran’s admittedly significant business, then they will choose not to do business with Iranian entities, the sanctions will have some effect.
But those are some big ifs.
The President hasn’t exactly been overly friendly to our NATO allies. His continued, baseless claims that NATO owes the US a debt highlights his continued lack of understanding of how the alliance works and has contributed to rifts between us and our partners. And we are seeing signs that the Europeans will deal with Iran, regardless of whether or not the US targets the Iranian economy with sanctions.
The European Union announced Friday that INSTEX, its mechanism for financial transactions that will bypass U.S. sanctions, is finally operational, and two or three transactions are already being executed, according to Araghchi. Several European countries have already announced that they will join, and perhaps even more important to its success, China also expressed interest Friday.
If the Europeans begin using this mechanism to buy oil from Iran, the President’s sanctions strategy to deal a major blow to a major component of the Iranian economy will not be effective.
Meanwhile, the EU’s carrot approach and continued participation in the JCPOA, as well as the Europeans’ willingness to work around US sanctions with a new financial mechanism that will allow them to do business with Iran, is concerning, as are other signs of a rift in our alliance. Last month Spain withdrew its frigate from a US-led combat fleet that was approaching the Persian Gulf, for what Madrid claims were “technical reasons.” What were those reasons?
[Defense Minister Margarita] Robles insisted Spain’s decision was “prudent” and “perfectly admissible” under the terms of a two-year cooperation agreement that placed the Méndez Núñez frigate with the U.S. fleet for advanced training. The ship and its 215 people on board have headed to Mumbai, India, she added.
“The United States government has embarked on a mission that wasn’t scheduled when the agreement was signed,” Robles told reporters during an official trip to Brussels.
Meanwhile, a top British General publicly contradicted US claims that we face an increased threat from Iran-backed forces in Iraq and Syria – a stunning statement, considering that the UK is our closest partner and part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing agreement that allows it insight into some of the most sensitive intelligence we have on Iran. This leads me to believe that Chris Ghika, the deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the US-led coalition fighting ISIS, has either not been reading or doesn’t have access to that information, or was making a purely political statement. I would think that the former option is unlikely, but what do I know?
Luckily, the US has plenty of data supporting our contention that Iran was responsible for the downing of the US drone on June 20, and the UK is at least being cautiously supportive, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
NORTHAM: The U.K. expressed cautious support, saying it had come to the conclusion it is almost certain Iran was involved in the attacks. But many European foreign ministers said they need more evidence. Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was blunt in saying the grainy video released by Central Command was quote, “not enough.” Dr. Sanam Vakil is a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
SANAM VAKIL: I think this really speaks to the very big divide that exists between Washington and European allies.
NORTHAM: Vakil says much of the skepticism in Europe and elsewhere stems from frustration with the Trump administration’s Iran policy, which they see as destabilizing.
It’s disturbing to me that some of our closest allies are beginning to doubt our credibility when it comes to one of the world’s biggest state sponsors of terrorism, and these doubts are making our get-tough policy on Iran much more difficult to implement, and Iran’s propaganda campaign, painting the US as an aggressor is not helping.
To be sure, Iran’s propaganda condemnation of the US is nothing new or different. It’s been going on since the hostage crisis, but with the seams of our closest alliances fraying, Tehran’s propaganda efforts may be more effective than usual.
We have withdrawn from an admittedly weak nuclear deal unilaterally, even though Iran has been complying with its easy terms, according to the IAEA.
This withdrawal, coupled with the rifts this administration created between us and our allies, has prompted at least some Europeans to disregard additional sanctions and create a financial mechanism to allow them to circumvent additional US sanctions, weakening a usually hefty tool in our arsenal.
So what should we have done?
Well, I think that even a weak nuclear deal with Iran is better than no deal at all. The JCPOA was specifically tailored toward nuclear weapons, and since we haven’t seen any reports that Iran continued its nuclear program and the agency tasked with monitoring Iran’s compliance says there have been no violations, we probably should have remained and began focusing on a bigger problem: Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups.
Had we not withdrawn from the JCPOA, I think our designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization would have carried a lot more weight, and wouldn’t make us look like we’re the ones ratcheting up the hostilities with Iran.
In addition to carrying out direct attacks, Iran has committed terrorism by proxy through Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, militias in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and the Gulf and a plethora of other terrorist groups. Iran has a long history of terrorist attacks against the U.S. and other Western countries, carrying out bombings, abductions, and hijackings.
The Trump administration recently warned Congress that Iran was cooperating with and supporting al-Qa’ida, making some raise a skeptical eyebrow. Regardless of what you may think of this administration, it is seriously doubtful that they would make a claim some would consider improbable without actual evidence. May I remind you that just because the media has not reported on it, doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t exist.
Iran’s support to the Huthis in Yemen, Kata’ib Hizballah and other proxies has resulted in attacks on energy infrastructure, probably in an effort to increase oil prices and prop up Iran’s best remaining source of revenue, and against the interests of our allies in the region. And Hizballah, a well known Iran-sponsored actor – was busted in Europe in 2015 with tons of explosives.
Look, no one wants a nuclear Iran, but if Tehran was complying with the admittedly loose terms of the JCPOA, we should have just remained in the deal, which would have at least prevented some rifts between us and our allies and sponsored a new deal targeting Iran’s terrorist activities, which would likely have had support from our European allies, especially given Iran’s recent activities, such as the disrupted MOIS plan to blow up a bunch of Iranian dissidents outside Paris last year and another plot to target a dissident in Albania.
We could have imposed new sanctions on Iran for its support to Hizballah, and the IRGC’s support to numerous other actors that continue to threaten not just the US, but also our allies worldwide, and no one would have batted an eyelash.
We could have not bragged on Twitter about how tough we were going to be on Tehran after the downing of our drone, taken action, and THEN informed the public about our response, instead of making ourselves look like indecisive braggarts in the eyes of the world.
But instead we’re going to sit back and watch as Iran intensifies its propaganda against us and our allies turn away from us. This doesn’t strike me as an effective Iran policy.