It is natural to feel sympathy with the Iranian people, who are struggling with an unprecedented economic crisis due to the renewal, after three years, of the US sanctions on the Islamic Republic. US President Donald Trump is hoping the renewed sanctions, which went into effect Monday, will force the Iranian regime to change its ways through “maximum economic pressure.”
The previous economic sanctions were lifted by president Barack Obama in 2015 following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Three months after withdrawing from the nuclear deal, Trump snapped back restrictions on access to US currency as well as gold and other precious metals, among other things. Additional sanctions are scheduled to go into effect in November, unless the Iranian regime makes a move beforehand. Last week, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani rejected an offer by Trump to meet for negotiations without any preconditions.
Just the threat of the sanctions has been enough to trigger financial mayhem and brave citizens throughout Iran have taken to the streets to protest. It is reminiscent of the 2009 wave of protests that followed the rigged elections in which people courageously sought international support in their fight for justice. Obama’s misreading the situation and ignoring their pleas was one of his most serious foreign policy mistakes.
In a telling development, recent protests have included calls against the mullahs for spending money on financing terrorism and wars, including funding Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and its costly involvement in Syria. Protesters have explicitly complained that money is going to the Palestinians that could save the crumbling economy at home.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, well-known for his opposition of the JCPOA, on Monday praised Trump and the US for the decision to reimpose the sanctions, saying in a statement: “This is an important moment for Israel, the US, the region and the entire world. It represents the determination to curb Iran’s aggression in the region and its ongoing intention to arm itself with nuclear weapons. I call upon the countries of Europe, which talk about stopping Iran, to join this measure. The time has come to stop talking and to take action, and that is exactly what the US has done and what Europe should do.”
The EU, on the other hand, rejected the move. A statement signed by the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, and the French, German and British foreign ministers, said: “We deeply regret the re-imposition of sanctions by the US, due to the latter’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”
They insisted that the Iranian nuclear program “remains exclusively peaceful” and said the remaining parties to the nuclear agreement “have committed to work on, inter alia, the preservation and maintenance of effective financial channels with Iran, and the continuation of Iran’s export of oil and gas.”
Netanyahu, like Trump, appears to be hoping that the renewed sanctions will be enough to force Iran to accept the clauses that would broaden the deal to include the development of missiles able to carry nuclear warheads, fueling terrorism and the spread of conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as dealing with the catastrophic human rights situation in Iran itself.
In a statement, Trump said the Iranian government “faces a choice: Either change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation.”
The re-imposition of sanctions is perceived as pressuring US allies and major European companies to choose between the limited Iranian market and the vast potential of the American market.
It remains to be seen how Iran will react. Will the Islamic Republic give in to the economic pressure and take measures that will persuade the US to lift the sanctions or will it take some drastic action in protest, such as closing the Straits of Hormuz?
Whatever Iran chooses, it is clear that the re-imposition of sanctions marks not only the huge policy differences between the Obama and Trump administrations, but also the deepening divide between the US and Europe. It’s a shame, though, that it’s the Iranian people that have to bear the brunt of their government’s policies.