29.11.2018 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iran: New American Sanctions, and How Iran May Respond

Barely a day passes without an outburst of angry words and threats from the US President directed at Iran at its people. If we believe the section of the US media that is loyal to -or controlled by – the White House, there is no more dangerous country that Iran.

This raises a very reasonable question: just what has Teheran done to annoy Donald Trump so much and provoke this display of thunder and lightning? Has Iran occupied US territory or threatened its sovereignty by placing military bases close to US borders, does it intimidate the US President in international meetings with calls for vengeance, or is it, perhaps, plotting regime change in a distant part of the world? Absolutely not. Far from it – Teheran is not interfering in the affairs of countries far away, and is, in fact, behaving perfectly correctly, calmly and reasonably, and in accordance with international law and codes of conduct.

But those people whom, in view of their status, one would expect to behave diplomatically – Donald Trump and his close associates such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and even the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley – continually rush around spouting coarse language and demonstrating their determination to keep a stranglehold over ordinary Iranian citizens. Things have got so bad that Donald Trump has made a big show of withdrawing from the so-called nuclear deal, which was signed by a number of nuclear powers, and has imposed unfair and aggressive sanctions on Iran. For example, the US has strictly prohibited exports of food or medicine to the country, even though, under international law, the use of such measures as a weapon constitutes a crime against humanity. The Iranian ambassador and the country’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Es’hagh Al Habib, has said, quite justifiably, that the negative consequences of the US sanctions will be felt first and foremost by ordinary Iranians who have never, until now, had any reason to feel hatred for the American people. But, true to the principles of aggressive imperialism, Donald Trump and his advisers are doing all they can to turn the two nations into enemies.

One event that attracted a lot of attention from media around the world was the recent meeting between members of Iran’s mission to the UN and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. In the meeting the Iranian ambassador to the UN firmly called on the UN to formulate an official -and fair- position in relation to the USA’s “evasion of international law” and to censure Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from a number of multilateral international agreements, especially Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the so-called nuclear agreement, signed by the previous US President, Barack Obama. Gholam-Ali Khoshroo said that it was without precedent in the history of the international community for the USA, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to punish other members of the UN for complying with a resolution of the Security Council. He also criticized the USA for attempting to threaten other countries with secondary sanctions if they did not observe the US sanctions against Iran. “The International community has to stand up to this violent and extra-judicial behavior.”

It needs to be said that economic sanctions are rarely effective. And in the present case they are a blunt instrument that is having a destabilizing effect on the Middle East and encouraging those who support repression and the use of brute force. More specifically, under international law economic sanctions imposed by an individual state constitute an act of aggression by that state against another. The new sanctions imposed by the USA against Iran this November are significantly wider than the previous ones, and apply to any country, company or individual who has dealings with Teheran that have not been approved by Washington.

It is hard to guess what could have motivated the new sanctions, other than Donald Trump’s impulsive determination to prove his supremacy not only in the USA but throughout the world. For, by definition, economic sanctions are the ultimate in “soft power”, used by rich countries to demonstrate their supremacy over poor and weak countries. According to US propaganda, they are clearly effective: they encourage the impoverished Iranian population to rise up and demand that their government back down. But this has never happened, and it is unlikely that it will happen in Iran. Sanctions, imposed as they are by a foreign “enemy”, generally have the effect of strengthening existing power structures and cementing them in place. As an example we can cite North Korea, Cuba and Iran, as well as the sanctions against Russia in relation to the Crimea: as the West now realizes such sanctions are absolutely pointless and have no hope of succeeding.

In the international media certain commentators have argued that the USA’s unilateral and ill-advised withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal is more than just an infringement of the international order, international law and all accepted codes of conduct. By aggressively and unceremoniously imposing sanctions, even on US allies, Donald Trump is undermining faith in “American democracy” and picking a fight with the whole world. At the same time the harsher sanctions are strengthening the positions of Iran’s military and religious authorities in relation to the more liberal and commercial state bodies, and strengthening public feeling against the USA. There is also no doubt that Donald Trump’s latest actions have also increased Teheran’s determination to reinforce its alliance with Russia and other countries opposed to the USA. Such a reality is hard for the businessman president of the USA to imagine – he rarely leaves his own country and has no conception of how to deal with the rest of the world through diplomacy, without resorting to force.

It cannot be said that the Iranian leadership is not actively seeking a way out of the current difficult situation. The country has had a huge amount of experience in dealing with Western sanctions, which started in 1979. At present Teheran is able to sidestep American sanctions and conclude trade agreements with those countries which have chosen to ignore the orders of the autocrat on the other side of the Atlantic. For example, the Tasnim news agency has reported that South Korea and Iran have agreed to use the South Korean won in their trade dealings in order to sidestep US sanctions. They have also agreed to use the South Korean currency for payments into and settlements on financial and bank accounts. This will allow South Korean and Iranian companies to continue working in a range of different areas.

The Iranian ambassador to South Korea has emphasized that the agreement between Teheran and Seoul is “pragmatic”. That is why the two countries have remained committed to strengthening the links between them in the face of “unfriendly, illegal and unilateral actions by the USA”. The South Korean ambassador to Iran, Ryu Jeong-Hyun has said that, despite the fact that many European companies have pulled out of Iran under the pressure of US sanctions, “South Korean companies understand how important the Iranian market is and have decided to stay.” It is worth noting that bilateral trade between Iran and South Korea exceeded 12 billion dollars last year.

Iran’s economic, political and trade links with Iraq have also been getting stronger and the Iraqi President, Barham Salih recently visited Iran and met his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He talked about the importance of good economic relations between the two countries, particularly since Iraq is still recovering from its war against DAESH. Iraq today is trying to restore its economy and achieve stability, which will require both domestic and external political initiatives. These are impossible without stability in the region, including in Iran. Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian President, has stated that Iran and Iraq have agreed to set up a new free trade zone. He predicts that in the near future the trade between the two countries may increase to $20 billion. It is worth nothing that both countries have agreed to stop using the US dollar for trade, and to use their national currencies instead.

Abbas Araghchi, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, claims that, following the US’s withdrawal from the 2015 multi-party nuclear agreement, Europe has done little to save it, and that Iran had expected much more from the Europeans. In particular, Teheran is not satisfied with the slow progress in the creation, together with the EU, of the special purpose vehicle (SPV), which would allow the parties to sidestep the new US sanctions against Iran. The EU hopes to use the SPV to preserve the economic advantages of doing business with Iran, particularly the right to buy oil and oil derivatives at low prices, a right which has resulted in huge profits for the EU.

Commenting on the declaration by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concerning Iran’s attitude to its nuclear program, Abbas Araghchi said that “Iran will remain a party to the nuclear deal as long as it brings a benefit to the country.” But if it turns out that it would be better off withdrawing from the deal, then “Iran will not stay in the deal for another second.”

That latest declaration is a clear demonstration that Teheran’s spirit has not been broken by the barbaric sanctions and Iran is continuing to follow its own policy. And Washington would be advised to keep a close eye on current events in order to make corrections to its policy. After all, the Iranians may take matters into their own hands, withdraw from the agreement and then focus on developing their nuclear weapon program as quickly as possible. And what would Donald Trump, great “strategist” that he is, do next? Threaten to use force and send aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf? But that would only further inflame the situation in a highly explosive region of the world.

Viktor Mikhin, a journalist and member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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