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Sanctions: Can Iran Avoid Taking the Bait?

By Shireen T. Hunter (source: LobeLog)

cartoon on sanctions by Bozorgmehr Hosseinpur

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.


About the Author:

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).


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