Intervention by Sanction

Donald Trump may have railed against certain elements of Republican Party orthodoxy during his run for President in 2016, but his attitude towards Iran came straight from the Republican playbook. He was a staunch critic of the Nuclear Deal signed in 2015, which Iran negotiated with NATO, China and Russia. In a risky move, Trump ordered a drone strike on Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this year. And, in a recent interview with Rush Limbaugh, Trump told the country not to “f*ck around with us”. 

The backbone of the Trump administration’s bullish attitude towards the Islamic Republic has been the imposition of trade sanctions. Last week, the President imposed new sanctions on Iran, targeting the country’s financial sector. It wasn’t the first time ‘The Donald’ had tried to cripple the Iranian economy; since he became Commander in Chief in 2017, Trump has strangled foreign trade with the Ayatollah’s family and inner circle, the Iranian Space Agency, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Sanctions are usually used by the American government against regimes it finds distasteful, but against whom it would be strategically difficult to deploy traditional hard power. Iran fits this description, given that its Twelver Shi’ite government is supported by Russia, and increasingly, China. The idea behind sanctions is to strangle the country’s economy until the governments are forced into negotiation with the US.

In the case of Iran, the use of sanctions has been a mixed success thus far. Iran’s economy is now one of the least globalised in the world and suffers from stifling rates of inflation. However, the regime in Tehran has not yet returned to negotiations regarding its nuclear programme; it has said it will do so only if the US returns to Obama’s 2015 deal first.

If Trump’s policy sounds like an acceptable way of dealing with another country, it shouldn’t. The worrying side-note regarding this 'intervention by sanction' approach is that it is likely to do much more than force Iran’s hand over its nuclear programme. When sanctions on the country immiserate its people, a process which is already well underway, the Islamic regime’s days will be numbered.

And make no mistake; the collapse of the Iranian government would cause a conflict which would make Syria look like the London Riots. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel would undoubtedly involve themselves directly, with NATO watching over proceedings from the skies, drones at the ready. Hundreds of thousands of people would die, and many more would overwhelm Europe’s borders.

It is at this point that Trump’s claim to have avoided direct intervention in the Middle East during his first term begins to sound less remarkable. If US sanctions on Iran cause the Twelver regime in Tehran to collapse anyway, resulting in a once-in-a-generation civil and proxy war, then the knowledge that American troops didn’t intervene directly in such a conflict wouldn’t provide much solace for the rest of us. Europe would likely live with the fallout of such a war for decades, whilst the Trumpies in Washington would score a political victory by claiming to have kept their boys out of the firing line. Trump’s policy is analogous to a mafia boss organising a drive-by-shooting, and then comforting himself by pointing out that he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger. But the result is still the same. 

Of course, there is little to like about the Iranian leadership, and the idea of them having nuclear weapons is unappetising, to say the least. But this has never been a likely prospect. The scenario I have just described of Iran falling to pieces, on the other hand, grows more plausible with every passing day.

Iran isn’t the only victim of predatory American sanctions, either; for Venezuela and Russia, the combination of falling oil prices and Western trade embargoes have also proven to be a near-fatal combination. And this morally bankrupt way of undermining the international state system doesn’t just make us our world less secure; it also deprives the Western countries of allies. As I have written before, Russia and Turkey could have been useful to the US and NATO in hemming in the Iranian regime. Now, from Russia’s perspective, the possibility of Iran building a nuclear weapon could be seen as insurance against American aggression. It would be one hell of a bargaining chip.

Joe Biden, for all his many faults as a candidate, would choose a more pragmatic approach to dealing with Iran. He has said that he will return to the 2015 Nuclear Deal he helped to negotiate as Vice President. But this doesn’t mean his administration shouldn’t be watched closely when it comes to sanctions. Let’s not forget that his administration sanctioned Russia to the eyeballs after the Ukraine crisis in 2014; an unwise move, as I have already pointed out. I’m not optimistic that the US will stop using sanctions anytime soon. But I do wish for them to show a little more promise in learning from their past mistakes. The next one could cost all of us big time.


Tom Leeman

I am a Politics and Spanish graduate from the University of Bristol, going on to study a Master's degree in Political Economy at King's College London.

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