New Sanctions on Iran and Options for Regional Cooperation in Middle East

United States has imposed new economic sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program. United States accuses Iran of providing support and funds to terrorist's organizations in the Middle East, destabilizing the Middle East region and supporting the regime of Assad in Syria.

These new sanctions will target the Iranian individuals and companies that are considered to be involved in supporting Iran' Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or supporting Iranian ballistic missile program. The important thing to notice is that the sanctions have been imposed one day after USA certifies Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal. The news of economic sanctions depicts the contradictory behavior of the United States towards Iran that is unhappy with the activities of Iran of destabilizing the region. By imposing economic sanctions while at the same time recertifying Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal depicts that USA wants to put more pressure on Iran while keeping in place nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal was an agreement reached in 2015 between Iran, the permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (USA, UK, Russia, France, China), Germany and European Union to curb nuclear program of Iran in return for lifting economic sanctions on Iran. Although this is the second certification by the State Department since Trump took office, the certification came at the last minute that shows reluctance and the bitterness of Trump towards the deal that was negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. However, the United States cannot pull out of the nuclear deal as it will be the violation of the United Nations Security Council resolution and would offer a platform to Iran to continue with its nuclear program.

Is Iran violating the nuclear deal? And what is the ultimate purpose of the sanctions? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which holds a key part in monitoring Iran’s commitments towards the implementation of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), stated positively in May 2017 that Iran is working towards implementing every provision of the deal. However, the JCPOA deals with Iran's nuclear related measures and not with the Iran’s support of rebels and terrorist organizations in Middle East. This depicts that although Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, but in absence of any deal with respect to Iran’s role in destabilizing Middle East, the country may hold up any activity that does not come under the nuclear deal. This has resulted in mistrust between Iran, United States and Gulf countries and that is why it has to face sanctions from USA and its diplomats in Kuwait have been asked to leave the country within 45 days over the court case that accused Iranian diplomats to have been working for spying and terrorism in Kuwait. The new sanctions by United States on Iran are aimed to target groups and individuals who have supported Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), would freeze their assets in USA, and would prohibit USA citizens from doing business with them. Hence, the ultimate aim of these sanctions is to curb procurement of military equipment by Iran that may be used for terrorist activities in the region.

What have been the repercussions of sanctions imposed on Iran? In the words of Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, sanctions have become ‘a bad habit’ with the United States. The sanctions have affected Iranian economy and they have been imposed in order to curb Iran’s power to wage war in the region. They have affected oil exports of the country. However, the effects of sanctions on Iranian economy have not been transferred to its political movements. Although the sanctions have been imposed with the aim to change Iran’s regional politics but these sanctions could create hostility among the Iranians who could blame the West for their hardships in the form of inflation and poor economy. Moreover, due to the sanctions imposed on Iran, China and Russia are both vary of including Iran as a full member to Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran has long exhibited a substantial interest to join as a full member in order to withstand pressure from the United States but this may take some years till it can prove that it is not involved in any armed conflict or facing any UN sanctions.

With recent developments, what are the options to deal with the increasing tensions with the Iran, Gulf States and United States? Iran is in dire need to build up a trustworthy relationship with the world, at least with its neighbors. For that, it needs to change its approach towards Houthi rebels in Yemen, Assad regime in Syria and Bahrain. There is conflict of interests between Iran and Gulf States in the wars and unrest in the Middle East that demands both sides to sit together and discuss the core of conflict. Since all fingers are pointing towards Iran at this time, Iran needs to take initiative and show to the world that it is willing to come to the table to discuss the concerns and is willing to change its approach towards region. The gas pipelines projects between Iran and Oman and Iran and Pakistan are examples of projects that could create incentives for regional cooperation and trust building. But this does not spare Saudi Arabia from playing its role; Saudi Arabia needs to create a welcoming atmosphere towards Iran and needs to focus more on the repercussions that the disputed in the region will have rather concerning about the export of Iranian revolution. Issuing visas for Iranian Hajj pilgrims and allowing Iran to cap its oil production at a higher level than other OPEC members in a negotiation over OPEC production are some of the good moves taken by the Saudi Arabia towards Iran but the attitude such as laying an anti-Iran platform by inviting Muslim leaders during Trump visit to Saudi Arabia, exacerbated the tensions. On the other hand, Trump needs to show more maturity while dealing with Iran unlike when he harshly criticized and accused Iran for sectarian conflicts and terrorism in front of leaders of Muslim nations during his visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. Such apparent alliance policy towards Arab autocrats also questions the United States stand for democracy and human rights. Moreover, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) needs to mend fences with Iran so that the region could focus on its economic development rather sectarian divides. 

Amnah Amjad

Amnah Amjad has done BSc (Honours) in Political Science from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. She has keen interest in international relations, counter-terrorism strategies and peace studies. She can be reached at amnah.amjad[at]gmail.com

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