Iran sanctions aren't a realistic path to peace

Iran sanctions aren't a realistic path to peace
© Getty Images

The Trump administration’s Monday announcement that it would nix all waivers for Iranian oil sanctions — including for friendly nations — is a tough-talking exercise in futility.

This move is unlikely in the extreme to change Tehran’s behavior for the positive, and it will do both the United States and the people of Iran more harm than good. Predictable outcomes include higher oil and gas prices (indeed, this is already accomplished by the announcement alone); hardship and resultant radicalization among the Iranian public; and increased risk of military conflict with Iran. Instead of expiring these waivers, the White House would do well to seek productive diplomatic engagement with Tehran — a plan that could improve U.S.-Iran relations and pave slow but effective a path to peace.

ADVERTISEMENT

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoJudge rules American-born woman who joined ISIS not a US citizen Human rights: Help or hindrance to toppling dictators? The Hill's Morning Report - Fallout from day one of Trump impeachment hearing MORE cast the decision to “[go] to zero” on Iranian oil exports as proof of Washington’s “seriousness of purpose” in coercing Tehran’s behavior while “listening to … and standing with” the Iranian people. But in taking questions from the press, he could not claim a record of success in actually changing Iran’s behavior with this maximum pressure approach, nor would he disavow military intervention as an option on the table. “We’re happy to get the outcome however we can achieve it,” Pompeo said. These are telling omissions, and they serve to highlight the slim chance of benefits from the waiver non-renewal as well as its gravest possible cost: an unnecessary and avoidable war.

The most immediate cost, of course, is financial. Oil prices hit a new high for 2019 by midday Monday, driven upwards by Pompeo’s remarks. Though President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE insisted in a tweet that “Saudi Arabia and others in OPEC will more than make up the Oil Flow difference in our now Full Sanctions on Iranian Oil,” gas prices are expected to increase by at least 10 cents a gallon.

The energy market disruption will have more serious effects for oil import-dependent allies like Japan and South Korea, and it will escalate tensions between Washington and Iranian customers like China, India and NATO ally Turkey. It could even have the unintended consequence of undermining U.S. financial institutions by encouraging those eager to continue doing business with Iran to work around economic systems Washington’s sanctions can affect.

Within Iran, cutting off oil exports will have grim results for ordinary people, as even the Trump administration has admitted. Without these exports, Iran will not have adequate foreign currency for imports of civilian necessities like food and medicine, meaning ordinary people will suffer because of sanctions punishing a government they cannot control. This effect is particularly cruel as Iran continues to endure heavy spring flooding which has displaced 500,000 people, half of them children, and destroyed crucial medical and school facilities. U.S. sanctions have already severely limited much-needed international aid to Iranian flooding victims, and the waiver cancellation will only make things worse.

In that context, Pompeo’s pledges of support for the Iranian people have a rather hollow ring. Iranians who are plugged into Western culture and would otherwise be inclined to view America favorably are unlikely to blame Tehran for Washington’s sanctions. If anything, the decision not to renew the waivers — and the shortages it will produce — will fuel sympathy for hardline rhetoric and undermine support for moderate Iranian leaders who might bring their country back to the negotiating table.

And the negotiating table is exactly where Iran and America alike should seek to be. Iran does not pose a significant or immediate threat to U.S. security; the regime is Tehran is oppressive and undesirable, yes, but deterrence and a massive imbalance of power ensure it is not and cannot be an existential hazard to the United States. This is a problem Washington can live with, and it is a problem best addressed through diplomacy — not mindless commitment to “maximum pressure” or reckless flirtation with forcible regime change and war. Ramping up sanctions against Iran is a simplistic and counterproductive plan the Trump administration should abandon for a robust and realistic diplomatic engagement.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill and The American Conservative, among other outlets.