US National Security Adviser John Bolton called it a “180-degree reversal from the failed Obama administration.” He wasn’t joking. Bolton isn’t the kidding type.
The re-imposition of some sanctions on Iran by the US this week was too dramatic to be missed. President Barack Obama lifted the sanctions in 2015 following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Having withdrawn from the nuclear deal three months ago, Trump snapped back restrictions on Iranian access to US dollars as well as gold and other precious metals; the sale or supply of aluminum, steel and coal; industrial software; and on the automobile and aviation industries, among other things.
More sanctions are scheduled to go into force in November, unless the Iranian regime carries out some significant changes.
Bolton told Fox News that the aim of the sanctions is definitely “to put maximum pressure on the government, and it’s not just to come back to discuss fixing a deal that’s basically not fixable, dealing with the nuclear weapons aspect. We want to see a much broader retreat by Iran from their support for international terrorism, their belligerent activity in the Middle East and their ballistic missile, nuclear-related program.”
But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week rejected an offer by Trump to meet for negotiations without any preconditions. Instead, this week Iran hosted North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho – a slap in Trump’s face, given his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.
In a typical Trump tweet, the president said the renewed sanctions mean, “Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States. I am asking for WORLD PEACE, nothing less!”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif snapped back a tweet of his own: “Reminder: International relations is not a beauty pageant, with tired cliches about a desire for WORLD PEACE.”
Tweets aren’t enough to change the world, hence the sanctions.
In a White House statement, Trump said the Iranian government “faces a choice: Either change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu naturally welcomed the return of sanctions. Like Trump, he hopes that the economic pressure will be enough to force Iran to accept the clauses he feels were missing from the nuclear deal. This includes broadening the deal to include a ban on developing missiles able to carry nuclear warheads; stopping the spread of terrorism and conflict via Iranian proxies, and, an added bonus for the Iranian people, dealing with the appalling human rights situation in the Islamic Republic itself.
The threat of the sanctions was enough to create economic mayhem in Iran, where brave citizens have taken to the streets to protest. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the ordinary folk caught up in their leaders’ power struggle. As Netanyahu himself repeatedly emphasizes, Israel has nothing against the Iranian people; it’s their regime that is problematic.
I was reminded of the 2009 wave of protests that followed the rigged elections. The fact that Obama ignored the demonstrators’ pleas for help was one of his earliest and most serious foreign policy mistakes. According to many reports, recent protests have significantly included calls against the mullahs for sponsoring Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen and for the costly involvement in Syria. Demonstrators have also complained that the huge sums of money that have been sent to the Palestinians could have saved the crumbling economy closer to home, where charity should begin.
The sanctions are not intended to bring about Iranian “regime change” so much as a change in the regime’s behavior. It is never wise to try to force a regime change without knowing who or what is going to replace it. If that lesson wasn’t clear before the Arab Spring that has lasted seven years, it should be evident now.
I am wary of overestimating the nature of the protests. While Rouhani and Zarif have an active social media presence, they ensure the average Iranian is denied similar access and it is hard to get an accurate picture of who and how many are protesting, where and why.
Nonetheless, there seems to be a move for change. At least in Iran. In Europe, it’s business as usual – literally.
The EU blasted the sanctions. A statement signed by the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, and the French, German and British foreign ministers, said: “We deeply regret the re-imposition of sanctions by the US, due to the latter’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” and insisted that the Iranian nuclear program “remains exclusively peaceful.”
The new round of economic restrictions is seen as an attempt to pressure US allies and European companies to choose between Iran’s relatively limited market and the vastly greater potential of the US. The major European powers are seeking to counter that.
A European Commission press release on August 6 proudly announced: “As the first batch of re-imposed US sanctions on Iran takes effect, the EU’s updated Blocking Statute enters into force on 7 August to mitigate their impact on the interests of EU companies doing legitimate business in Iran....
“The Blocking Statute allows EU operators to recover damages arising from US extraterritorial sanctions from the persons causing them and nullifies the effect in the EU of any foreign court rulings based on them. It also forbids EU persons from complying with those sanctions, unless exceptionally authorized to do so by the Commission in case non-compliance seriously damages their interests or the interests of the Union....”
In non-bureaucratic language, the statement could be reduced to a “thumbing the nose” emoticon. Or even the non-diplomatic use of a different finger.
The renewal of sanctions signifies not only the huge policy differences between the Obama and Trump administrations, but also the ever-widening gap between the US and Europe.
This divide did not surprise me. I was, however, caught off guard by another diplomatic development this week: The rift between Canada and Saudi Arabia. This progressed from a war of words on Twitter (where else?) and escalated into a crisis in which diplomats were mutually expelled and business transactions suspended.
Officially, the reason is the “grave concern” that Canada – rightly – has with the human rights situation in the Saudi kingdom. Possibly some of this is also anti-Trump fallout, with Canada’s Justin Trudeau tackling the Saudis’ growing ties with the US administration.
It is laughable to consider Saudi Arabia a “moderate” country. The powerful heir to the throne, Mohammed Bin Salman, for example, famously recently permitted women to drive, but less laudably arrested some of the female activists behind the campaign.
I worry about the fate of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife and children managed to escape to Canada. The story of Princeton doctoral student Xiyue Wang, imprisoned in Iran, is less publicized but no less disturbing.
Don’t be blinded by the brouhaha over the Nation-State Law. Human rights in Israel are not in a catastrophic decline. It wasn’t Israel that fined a woman this week for wearing a burka in a shopping center. That would be Denmark. Meanwhile, over in Iran, brave women are fighting for the right to remove their hijabs in public.
It seems to demonstrate the tricky nature of the verb “to sanction”: In one case it means “to authorize” and in the other “to punish.” When it comes to diplomacy, there are double meanings and double standards at play.
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