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. This is also the reason why the Iran nuclear deal was never going to work in the first place since it did nothing to change the behavior of the mullahs. They remain as intent as ever on spreading their extremism, known as “Shia sphere” of influence and using violence to achieve it, which is why the Trump administration has moved on imposing additional sanctions even as it certifies the regime in compliance with the nuclear agreement.

  2. The Iranian leadership would be well advised not to fall into that trap. The US is increasingly violating the spirit and the letter of the nuclear deal by supporting new sanctions under other headings and advising against business development in Iran. Actually that kind of action of the US government may be self-defeating if Iran is able to use the multilateral settlement mechanism and argue its case on legal grounds. The IAEA has certified Iranian compliance, therefore Iran has complied with the deal. The US on the other hand has used anti-Iranian rhetoric which is technically against the provisions of the deal, it has also acted under trump to discourage investments in Iran, which is another violation of the letter of the deal and lastly it has reinstated additional sanctions. Sanctions on means of defences of a country are curious even if the ideology of the current regime in Iran is nothing but harmful to the interest of the Iranian people. The nuclear deal was supposed to lift nuclear sanctions however the reluctance of OFAC, an US gov institution dependent of the treasury and the FATF, a global norm-setting organisation, in providing clear guidance for dealing with Iranian entities has resulted in the gutting of the financing of investment in Iran, even from European institutions. Iran is still listed in the MSCQ questionnaires, and in all due diligence as a sanctioned country where no business is advisable or permitted. The Eu and the US were supposed to take all necessary measures (including having ofac or the FATF to issue interpretative binding guidance) and ensure the effective lifting of the sanctions. In that regard, despite Iranian good will and confidence building measures the P5+1 failed to uphold their commitments. Should that aspect fail to be addressed in the settlement body of the JCPOA, the accord would be proven to be lopsided and mostly ineffective as the Supreme Leader has contended as “written too quickly”. If I had one piece of advice to give to the Iranian government, I would test (I) the enforceability of the accord on the legal ground within the mechanisms provided in the accord and test the multilateral character and (ii) even bring an action for the violation of the UNSC in the Hague at the ICJ. On the regional ground, Iran should provide accurate precision guided missile to the Houthis which should fire ballistic missiles in Riyadh and in the red sea so as to increase insurance premiums and the price of oil as a warning. It should avoid any entanglement with the Israelis. Absent any successes on the merits of the Iranian case on the legal front, iran should then consider to renegotiate a great bargain or reverse the good faith implementation of the current deal. If the plan of Trump is to have the MEK as the new gov of Iran and/or pursue an explosion of the country, I am ready like other to leave Europe and join forces with the revolutionary guard if need be.

  3. @ Michael Khattib Remind me again how many “Shia extremists” flew hijacked air planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11 Mike?

    Oh, that’s right – none of them! They were all Sunnis from our great ally Saudi Arabia.

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