Sanctions: Can Iran Avoid Taking the Bait?

by Shireen T. Hunter    

The U.S. House of Representatives has just imposed new sanctions on Iran as well as on Russia and North Korea. The Iran sanctions have been justified based on its missile development and its disregard of human rights, plus its so-called destabilizing activities in the Middle East.

Because technically these sanctions are not new, they cannot be strictly speaking considered a violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, they will undoubtedly undermine the success of the nuclear deal. Already, the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric and its constant attacks on the JCPOA, and even President Trump’s own statements to the effect that Iran has violated the spirit of the accord, have given new life to opponents of the deal in Iran.

These opponents, meanwhile, have become emboldened in their attacks on President Hassan Rouhani, frequently pointing out the weakness of the JCPOA from Iran’s perspective and, in general, questioning the wisdom of trusting America. After the announcement of the congressional sanctions, some hardliners have claimed that the Rouhani government’s passivity in the face of what they see as US provocations has been responsible for new U.S. pressure and threats against Iran. For example, one commentator claimed that Washington can continue to pressure Tehran because it does not pay any price for such behavior.

Such statements ignore the fact that Iran will suffer much more than the United States in any real confrontation. Nevertheless, if the JCPOA doesn’t deliver any concrete results, such arguments might become more popular among Iranians and thus weaken President Rouhani’s position.

The JCPOA’s detractors in Congress and within the Trump administration would indeed like to see Iran jettison the agreement and thus provide a casus belli to those who favor a military strike on Iran, possibly as an initial step towards a change of the country’s political system and leadership.

For instance, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly believes that the United States should not be the first to exit the JCPOA because in doing so it will lose European backing. Instead, Corker maintains that, through increased pressures, the United States should force the Iranian government to initiate withdrawal from the agreement. Nor is this a very imaginative approach. It is a common practice both in individual interactions and among collectivities to force a competitor’s decision by testing its patience and forcing it to do something self-destructive.

Having by all accounts adhered to its JCPOA commitments, Iran understandably feels frustrated and dismayed at the hostile statements and actions emanating from various quarters in the United States, including the president himself.

However, the worst thing Iran can do is to react impulsively to US actions and statements. In particular, Iran should avoid any tit-for-tat response to America’s actions. Hardliners in Iran will put enormous pressure on the Rouhani government to take retaliatory measures against America to safeguard the country’s national pride and dignity. However, such measures are more likely to hurt Iran than America. In fact, the only result of such measures would be to strengthen the position of anti-Iran groups within US political institutions and circles, potentially hastening some sort of US military action against Iran. Needless to say, the material and human costs for Iran of even a limited military encounter with the US would far outweigh the cost of sanctions.

Under these circumstances, Iran’s leadership must resist calls for either withdrawal from the JCPOA or even symbolic retaliation against America. This will not be easy given the political line-up in Iran, but it is the only wise and safe option for the country.

Of course, if the Trump administration and the US Iran hawks are determined to wage a war against Iran, such Iranian caution would not be sufficient to dissuade them. But it might make it more difficult for the US administration to move in that direction. For example, European countries and other permanent members of the UN Security Council would be reluctant to support such a venture if Iran exercised caution and restraint.

In addition to exercising caution, Iran should try to open channels of communications if the US shows a willingness to do so as well. Some reports claim that Oman has already been passing messages between the two countries. If true, Oman, as usual, would be a worthy mediator.

However, for such efforts to succeed, both Iran and the United States should avoid excessive pride. The US should not insist that Iran essentially admit defeat and repent, and Iran should not see compromise with America as against its national pride. Meanwhile, European states should also shoulder their responsibilities vis a via the JCPOA and advise America to do so as well. In particular, they should try to dissuade US from engaging in another Middle East war that will exacerbate their economic and refugee problems.

If the stars align in this fashion, some good might come out of a very bad situation. Otherwise, the clouds of war might again gather in a region that is already devastated by decades of strife.

Photo: Bob Corker (Munich Security Conference/Koerner

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Of course Shireen is right, but to even think of military action (BOMB Iran, McNasty) would be catastrophic for all of us. The” US Congress” with its committees and decisions, seem to have no idea of reality despite their already heavy burden of deaths in the places they have attacked an invaded. Are there no sensible people in positions of power in the USA?

  2. Everyone should now simply ignore the idiot US President and his idiot US Congress.
    They are all a complete bunch of idiots with nothing better to do than earn Israeli shekels.
    If they want to turn the US into the laughing stock of the world – let them go to it.

  3. It is Israel that has been saying Iran should be bombed for the last 40 years. Israel is trying to take oil from Syria’s Golan Heights and Iran will stop them. Look up the Genie Oil Co. site and you will see right after this discovery, a so called civil war broke out in Syria. If you remember, it was Israel that said Saddam had yellow cake uranium and we invaded. Ever since then Israel has gotten free oil from Kirkuk, Iraq via a 42″ pipeline that US taxpayers paid for thanks to Dick Chaney and his Haliburton Co. Now Dick Chaney is a board member of Genie Oil.

  4. Iran should develop nuke ASAP. US will not attack when Iran can nuke it and its allies.

  5. It needs to be understood that the JCPOA is not a treaty, and the JCPOA contains no provisions for ‘withdrawal’. The JCPOA is an intergovernmental agreement between six governments and the European Commission.

    The ‘JCPOA’ was codified in international law by the UN Security Council on July 20, 2015 in its resolution S/2231, which incorporates JCPOA as Annex A. Withdrawal from Security Council Resolution S/2231 is not an option for the U.S. Administration; only a new Security Council resolution can modify or revoke S/2231.

    Neither the U.S. President nor any other head of State can make a decision on ‘nonperformance of commitments’ of a State under UN Security Council Resolution S/2231. A question raised about ‘nonperformance of commitments’ would become a matter for UN Security Council consideration. Since in the UN Security Council, China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. hold veto power, no UN Security Council action against any State for nonperformance under S/2231 can be expected.

    The Iranian leadership understands all that very well. In reaction to actions the U.S. Congress and Administration take, Iran may decide to claim ‘nonperformance of commitments’ under S/2231 and try to bring the matter to the UN Security Council, while knowing that there would be no result, due to a U.S. veto.

    The real question is what the U.S. President will do when he understands that the UN Security Council stands in the way of the multinational actions he desires to see taken against Iran. There is reason for concern about the answer.

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