Concerned states should prioritise their objectives when considering further sanctions against Iran, Mark Fitzpatrick advises.

Iran’s behaviour is problematic in many ways, including missile tests, abetting regional strife and taking US citizens hostage. Challenges in the nuclear field that used to top the list, however, are no longer an issue – at least not so long as the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015, remain fulfilled. And so far, they are. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium is far below the amount allowed under the deal’s terms. With Iran’s nuclear programme remaining under strict limits, the prospect of going to war over this is also off the table for the time being. 

Considering the other problems that Iran continues to pose, concerned states should prioritise their objectives. Preserving a deal that blocks all Iranian paths to a nuclear weapon is a first-order goal. Only with nuclear weapons would Iran present a direct national security threat to states beyond its neighbourhood. Impairing Iran’s missile program is a second-order objective. Stopping Iran’s arms shipments to Yemen is at best a third-order problem, the solution for which lies in an internal political settlement.

Concerned states should be prepared to sanction Iran for non-nuclear violations, when warranted. That is, when the sanctions can be more effective than other policy tools in affecting the behaviour in question. ‘When warranted’ also means when applying such sanctions does not intentionally or inadvertently violate the JCPOA. Undermining the sanctions relief that Iran was promised under the deal would arguably violate it.

In considering effectiveness, it should be realised that more sanctions will not cause Iran to buckle under and renegotiate the JCPOA on US terms. Sanctions helped bring Iran to the negotiating table, but they are not what persuaded it to cut back its nuclear infrastructure and accept intrusive inspections. Rather, US willingness to compromise by accepting some level of enrichment in Iran was key to persuading Iran to accept limits. Deal opponents call that compromise the original sin. I suppose so, in the sense that sex was considered to be the original sin. Without it, negotiations could not have given birth to a deal. There is no virgin birth. Nor was a unicorn deal possible.

Nor will sanctions force Iran to abandon its missile programme, which it sees as essential for defence, given the decrepit nature of Iran’s air force. Missile sanctions can help create leverage, as well as slow, damage and undermine the programme’s efficacy. But incentives also will be necessary to achieve a broader arms control arrangement with Iran on missiles. Iran may only accept missile limits if other regional players do so as well, perhaps as part of a multilateral deal. Meanwhile, the missile threat can be addressed via integrated missile defence in the Gulf states, enhanced export controls and civil defence measures.

Some of the Iran-related bills under consideration by Congress seem to be drafted to contravene the JCPOA. HR 566, for example – the so-called ‘Terror-Free Skies Act’ – seeks to rescind the delisting of Iran Air as a Specially Designated National by the US Department of the Treasury. This would almost certainly put the kibosh on export licenses for the 80 planes that Boeing contracted to sell Iran.

HR 566 and other sanctions bills seem intended to goad Iran into responding by abrogating the JCPOA. Some sanctions advocates are very clear that this is their goal. But Iran will not be easily goaded, because it does not want to be seen as the party of blame for killing the deal. If the deal unravels because of US antipathy, US partners will not agree to reimpose sanctions. As Ilan Goldenberg wrote recently, even though the Trump team has maintained that it will abide by the deal, the global narrative is already being set that it is the unreasonable actor and if the deal collapses, Iran will not be at fault. 

One new sanction under consideration in Washington – designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation – seems designed to warn foreign firms from doing any business with Iran, because of the persuasive role of IRGC-related enterprises in the economy. This would be at least a violation of the spirit, and, arguably, of the letter of the JCPOA. But it would be a purposeless violation, because the penalties it would impose are the same as IRGC’s existing sanctions. 

Worse than pointless, an IRGC designation would be counter-productive, by endangering US forces in Iraq and increasing the difficulty of defeating the Islamic State. Although their role is problematic, IRGC-associated militia are involved in that fight. Demonising them via a terrorist label could well see them repurposed as an active foe of US forces, rather than as a fitful ally. 

The IRGC is also an important player in several regional conflicts. As Hossein Mousavian argues, to label it terrorist will shut the door on opportunities for successful diplomacy. Mousavian also claims that designating the IRGC as a terrorist group would be tantamount to an unofficial declaration of war. This is an exaggeration, but that is how many Iranians would see it. The Foreign Terrorist Organizations law was not intended to be used as pressure against countries. It has never been applied to an official government institution.  

Consideration of new sanctions should not ignore political dimensions. More pressure on Iran could turn the population against the government that promised sanctions relief, and see Rouhani lose his bid for re-election on 19 May. Raising this consideration does not mean that US policy should turn on the uncertain political impact in adversary countries. But neither should we ignore the impact. A rule of thumb is that the US probably cannot do much to help Rouhani, but it certainly can hurt him. Whether or not one sees him as a moderate, he is unquestionably better than a hard-line alternative such as IRGC-Qods force commander Qassem Soleimaini.

If the objective is to prolong enmity with Iran for as long as possible, Washington should continue taking hostile and insulting steps like banning all visitors carrying an Iranian passport. The White House’s maladroit executive order blacklisting seven Muslim countries disproportionately affected Iran because of the size and international-mindedness of its population, and because without diplomatic relations with the US, there was no way for its government to legally overcome the presumption that its citizens presented a terrorism risk.

Similarly motivated acts such as blacklisting segments of Iran’s military, which is populated via conscription, cannot help but spur Iranians to rally around the flag. They reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s narrative that the US cannot be trusted and is irreconcilably anti-Iranian. 

I repeat, let us keep our eye on the ball. We saw in the North Korean case how abandoning a deal that limited their nuclear program has led to an insurmountable problem. The 1994 Agreed Framework was not perfect and North Korea cheated, but the deal did significantly roll back its nuclear weapons programme. Similarly in Iran’s case, it is far better to implement an incomplete but effective agreement than it is to scrap it in hopes of achieving the best outcome and end up with the worst. 

Mark Fitzpatrick is Executive Director of IISS–Americas. This commentary is drawn from his remarks at a panel on 21 February 2017, which discussed ‘Iran: Sanctions and the Nuclear Deal’, hosted by the Center for the National Interest. The video is available here.

Back to content list

Politics and Strategy Homepage

The Survival Editors' Blog

Ideas and commentary from Survival editors and contributors

Latest Posts

  • Politics and Strategy
    17 March 2017

    Freezing North Korea’s nuclear quest

    Every effort should be made to stop the surge in North Korea's missile capabilities, according to Mark Fitzpatrick.

  • Politics and Strategy
    13 March 2017

    The Emperor vs the Adults: Donald Trump and Wilhelm II

    The analogy between the US president and German emperor works because of similar institutional and international realities, and because personality matters, writes François Heisbourg in the forthcoming April–May issue of Survival.

  • Politics and Strategy
    28 February 2017

    Don’t apply new Iran sanctions before prioritising the problems

    Concerned states should prioritise their objectives when considering further sanctions against Iran, Mark Fitzpatrick advises.

  • Politics and Strategy
    21 February 2017

    An H.R. McMaster Survival reader

    Free access to four articles by newly appointed US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

  • Politics and Strategy
    13 February 2017

    North Korean missile test: Don’t go ballistic

    Although North Korea’s latest missile test appears significant in technological terms, it did not cross President Donald Trump’s tweeted red line. Trump’s response suggests a willingness to deliberate when the policy options are dismal.