Dismantling sanctions emboldens Iran, Trump can forge a new policy
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U.S. President Donald Trump, with the apparent support of the Republican Senate, appears poised to unveil new targeted sanctions on Iran in the coming days. While the details of the sanctions are unclear, the administration’s acknowledgment and willingness to act strongly against Iran is a turning point for the Middle East.

Indeed, Trump’s administration has a grand opportunity to take a nuanced and holistic approach to Iran, strategically addressing Iran’s regional behavior, while remaining committed to the promises America has made under the terms of the nuclear deal.


The latest round of sanctions would continue a trend of tough talk against Iran that has characterized the Trump administration’s first two months, and represent a marked departure from the softer, more conciliatory efforts of the previous administration. These sanctions, if enacted, would be the second set of new U.S. sanctions on Iran since Trump assumed office, and the first action against Iran since the departure of Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, who had been viewed by many as driving the administration’s hawkish rhetoric after he swiftly put Iran “on notice” in reaction to an Iranian missile test in February.


The new sanctions, however, signal that this strong stance towards Iran will continue in a post-Flynn administration, and are consistent with the series of tweets from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE in February, in which he made it abundantly clear that he is not going to take the same “kind” approach as Obama.

The time is right for a new approach in the region. After the iconic signing of the nuclear deal and the subsequent lifting of many sanctions, Iran has, without consequence, continued and perhaps, even ramped up its sponsorship of terrorism and its destabilizing efforts in the areas perhaps most important to U.S. foreign policy, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Rather than merely sponsoring and supplying actors that fight the U.S. and its allies, a vast number of soldiers from the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are fighting on the ground in Syria.

Further complementing Iran’s heightened regional aggression and aspirations, there have been a number of direct confrontations between the U.S. and Iran navies in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, leading to the humiliating capture of 10 U.S. sailors in 2016. While Obama was bound to seeing the JCPOA through, Trump’s hawks may not have the same inclination, perhaps even changing course in response to provocative gestures.

Starting in 1979, with the U.S. Embassy seizure and hostage crisis, the U.S. adopted a multipronged approach to Iran, addressing both Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even as late as 2010, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 justified new sanctions by citing that “The illicit nuclear activities of the Government of Iran, combined with its development of unconventional weapons and ballistic missiles and its support for international terrorism, represent a threat to the security of the United States.”

In recent years, however, the U.S. efforts to reign in Iran’s nuclear capabilities, while critically important and largely successful, increasingly resulted in relaxing its policy to curb Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. Today, while many sanctions remain in place, the dismantling of the international sanctions regime has only emboldened Iran, as foreign investments begin to trickle in.

Regardless of the remaining sanctions in place due to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, the reality is that removing critical sanctions will only empower Iran’s flexibility and wide network of activities, as no deal can control how Iran allocates its newfound funds. Without international consensus, sanctions will be very difficult to “snap back” on, especially as the U.S. continues to alienate its network of allies under the new administration.   

This development becomes even more troubling when acknowledging that a United Nations resolution prohibiting Iran from acquiring sophisticated weapons will expire in 2020, allowing Iran to soon purchase surface warships, submarines, anti-ship missiles and more.

There is no doubt that commitment to the JCPOA is the right path forward, now binding Iran to international scrutiny in nuclear affairs. Throwing the deal out would just empower Iran further, giving its military/extremist elements more power at a tense time in Iranian politics. However, if the U.S. has been willing to vehemently condemn Russia’s actions in Syria, it should do so even more with Iran, regardless of the nuclear pact, as its actions are no less destabilizing and counter to the United States.   

While additional targeted sanctions may indeed have results, an effective path forward should first and foremost continue to empower the IAEA while engaging all partners to ensure strict adherence to the deal’s measures. The U.S. must also include its GCC partners that, other than Israel, are impacted the most by the outcome of the deal. Recognizing their concerns and intelligence in the region is imperative to monitoring and implementation.

While nuance and alliance strengthening may be a lot to ask from a U.S. administration that has shown a proclivity to act on its own terms in its first months, the peace and security of the Middle East region rests on it.

Ahmed Al-Hamli is the president of TRENDS Research and Advisory, an independent and progressive research center based in Abu Dhabi.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.