by Imad K. Harb
President Donald Trump has reimposed an old set of American sanctions on Iran, as well as new ones following his abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last May.
For regional neighbours Lebanon and Iraq, these sanctions could not have come at a worse time. Both are in the throes of political crises that threaten their fragile democracies. Both need to avoid the complications arising out of a poorly-thought-out Trump decision.
In fact, if the Trump administration wants to help its friends in the Arab world, it would do well to try to blunt the impact of these sanctions on these two countries.
On August 6, the US reimposed sanctions on the use of dollar bank notes in Iran’s trade transactions, which had been permitted when the Islamic Republic signed the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, in July 2015.
Another oil-related batch of sanctions will be imposed on November 5 and are likely to reduce Iran’s exports by about 500,000 barrels per day, thus disrupting international energy markets and causing a price increase of about $20 per barrel.
In fact, aside from the domestic impact in Iran, these measures are likely to cause global financial and commodity disruptions that will be felt by large and small economies.
Given their economic relationship with the United States and the American currency, Lebanon and Iraq have no recourse but to abide by what Washington wants.
But, unfortunately for the two countries, the devil is in the details of their political realities. Both currently have caretaker governments that prevent them from making firm decisions on compliance with sanctions.
Both have pro-Iranian political forces that oppose the sanctions – seeing them as a foreign tool to effect regime change in Tehran – and consider it their duty to help defend current regime.
Lebanon’s parliamentary elections last May produced a small majority for Iran-supported Hizballah and its affiliated political factions. Their approval of government policies, domestic and foreign, is pivotal.
American-friendly Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri cannot form a cabinet without the support of the Party of God.
But this support is not automatic and does not come cheap. Hizballah has previously used its political and military power to impose conditions on the Lebanese state and successive governments. This time is no different.
While abiding by some sensitivities regarding Lebanon’s sectarian politics and relations with the United States, Hizballah is not likely to accept a full compliance with American sanctions.
Obliquely sending a message to his political adversaries, including Hariri, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah predicted on August 14 that the sanctions will fail. He also declared his belief in the resilience of the Iranian regime, and that the Trump administration is merely “building dreams”.
Hizballah – considered a terrorist organisation by the United States – has itself been chafing under American sanctions. What has saved Lebanon’s economy has been the creative methods Lebanese financial authorities have employed to avoid them.
With Hizballah sharing the same foxhole with Iran, it is thus very difficult for whatever government that takes the reins in Beirut to fully comply with the newest American sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Iraq’s Push and Pull
Iraq fares no differently. Results from its May parliamentary elections, after a manual recount following allegations of electoral fraud and corruption have showed a diffuse power distribution of parliamentary seats between centrists and pro-Iranian political forces.
Caretaker Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, whose coalition came in third with 42 seats, is still considered to be the most acceptable politician to form Iraq’s new government.
He has very good relations with the United States and is seen as having done well in fighting the Islamic State. His main domestic supporter is cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who currently challenges Iran’s influence among Iraq’s Shia and controls a parliamentary coalition of 54 seats.
But Abadi’s announcement on August 7 that his government will abide by the American sanctions on Iran, put his prospects as premier in jeopardy.
Surprised and disappointed by his stance, Tehran also berated him for his “disloyal attitude” and for supposedly dishonoring the Iranian “martyrs” who fought for Iraq against the Islamic State. Consequently, he felt compelled to cancel a visit he had planned to Iran.
In the end, Abadi had to temper his commitment to the American sanctions, and even offered a concession to the Islamic Republic. It is thus plainly evident that his difficulties make it hard for him to be a reliable partner in the Trump administration’s strategy against Iran.
The coalition of states the Trump administration hopes to build to impose a solid affront on Iran has two very weak links.
The danger of pushing Beirut and Baghdad to fully comply with sanctions may very well collapse whatever political stability they still possess, and deprive Washington of two crucial allies.
Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. Republished, with permission, from the New Arab.