Middle East Analysis

The Destabilising Impact of Sanctions

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President Hassan Rouhani (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran on May 8, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In 2018 the United States withdrew from the Iran Deal. Now the administration of President Donald Trump is ratcheting up the pressure on the Islamic Republic. Tactics looks at the impact and potential implications of Trump’s moves against Tehran.

This Month, the White House announced that President Trump was imposing additional sanctions on Iran’s metal sectors: iron, steel, aluminium and copper. The move meant that the United States had imposed sanctions on Iran’s three key exports: oil, petrochemicals, and metals.

The US government explained on its website: “The Administration is imposing tougher sanctions on Iran than ever before because the regime continues to engage in destructive and destabilizing activities. The regime has maintained its nuclear ambitions and continues to develop its ballistic missile capabilities and support terrorism. The United States will aggressively enforce its sanctions, and those who continue to engage in sanctionable activity involving Iran will face severe consequences.”

On the Obama-era Iran Deal, Washington explained the decision to scrap it thus (their capitalisation): “WORST DEAL EVER NEGOTIATED: The Iran deal was a disastrous one-sided deal that failed to end Iran’s nuclear program and the full range of the regime’s malign activity.”

More specifically, the White House Fact sheet claimed that The Iran Deal had “left Iran with future pathways to pursue nuclear weapons” and didn’t provide effective mechanisms for inspections and verification.

The Fact Sheet credits Israel with having provided evidence that Tehran has secretly continued to pursue nuclear weapons. It also identifies what it calls “Iran’s wide range of malign activities”: a “global terrorist campaign, unjust detention of Americans, ballistic missile development.”

The Trump administration also accused Iran of destabilising the Middle East. Trump has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” and has claimed that the “pressure campaign is working, having already denied the regime direct access to more than $10 billion in oil revenue since May 2018.”


But Iran has faced American economic sanctions from its earliest days after the 1979 revolution that ended the rule of the Shah and created the Islamic Republic 40 years ago. In November 1979, Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and detained 52 American diplomats for 444 days. In response, Washington froze Iranian assets and cut all US trade and investment with Iran.

During the 1980s and 90s, additional punitive measures were implemented. In 1996, the US threatened to fine countries and associated companies that invested in Iran’s petroleum sector, although these measures were not enforced for several years. In 2010 these sanctions tightened when Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act.

Between 2006 and 2010, the United Nations Security Council imposed tough sanctions resolutions aimed at preventing Iran’s development of dual-use nuclear capabilities that could enable the production of nuclear weapons.


If one of the ostensible aims of Trump’s pressure on Iran is to stabilise the Middle East, the logic is that the negative impact of the sanctions will force concessions from Tehran and bring the regime of President Hassan Rouhani into line with US wishes, namely a regional balance of power that favours traditional American allies Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The problem with Trump’s calculation is that, even if it succeeds in securing short-term concessions, it leaves a heavyweight regional power restless and humiliated and therefore more likely to pursue military successes to bolster its prestige.

Trump’s sanctions have damaged the Iranian economy, but it does not necessarily follow that a change in Iranian politics is coming. It is too early to tell what the full political impact of the new American sanctions will be as they only came in to affect this year. It is likely that anti-US currents in Iran will be boosted and support for the regime in the face of what they see as unprovoked economic warfare will increase.

Over the decades Iran has developed expertise in dealing with American sanctions and in 2019 there are allied states that will support the regime in Tehran, even though they will seek to avoid confrontation with the Americans.

Far from bringing about a forced stabilisation of the Middle East, sanctions cause human suffering and political chaos. The Tactics Institute calls talks, sponsored by the Europeans Union, to settle the issues of Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions and Iran’s alleged funding of terrorist groups in the region.

The security of the entire region and beyond would be at risk if the United States pursued a path of war against Iran. A war against Iran is something that American allied in the Middle East have pursued for years for their own geo-political advantage. Their voices are now augmented by hawkish figures in the White House, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton.

The prospect of a conflict with Iran is one that should alarm all people interested in maintaining security for the citizens of states in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. It is a military conflict that, once started, would be both unpredictable and difficult to contain.