Unsanctioned conflict

On the 5th of November, the second round of the United States’ economic sanctions hits Iran and its partners. These sanctions coupled with the potential fall of the Iran nuclear deal may set the ground for a regional conflict.

“Trump’s policies often seem to follow little logic other than to do the opposite of what Obama did, no matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences”, affirmed Wendy R U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2011 to 2015. This comment seems true when looking at Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has the goal “to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful” (U.S, 2018). What might be the consequences of Trump’s decision? What may be the consequences of the economic sanctions?

A Potential end of the JCPOA

Because a story always has a prologue, let’s briefly set up the context. Since 1979, Iran has balanced between dogmatism and pragmatism. On the dogmatic side, you have Ali Khamenei or the Pasdaran – the heart of the Iranian regime. On the other side, you have policy makers and diplomats (Ramses, 2019). Since 1953, Iran and US have had a troublesome relationship. However, within a complex Middle-East context and after a decade of diplomatic discussion, occidental countries and Iran reached an agreement in respect to nuclear power in Iran. The JCPOA was a model “for combining the threat of sanctions and continued isolation with the hard work of negotiating, even between countries whose relationships are shaped by conflict and distrust” (Werdy R.Sherman, 2018).

Iran and Nuclear Power – a need or a threat?

As highlighted by Kjetil Selvik, Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, the demand for self-determination is a founding idea of the 79’s revolution in Iran. Mastering nuclear technology and defending the right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil have become matters of principle.  Moreover, Iran’s need for nuclear power is genuine “because Iran relies on proceeds from oil exports for most revenues, and could become politically vulnerable if exports decline” (Zarif, 2008). In this vein, Iran’s Minister of Foreign affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif indicated that “Iran’s plans to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity by 2020 may save Iran nearly $14 billion annually”. Concerning the present fright of Iran’s nuclear power, the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2015 states that “the Agency has found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme (IAEA, 2015). Today, a similar situation is verified (IAEA, 2018). The JCPOA has not been ratified in the perfect context, knowing that Iran was sliding “toward a military dictatorship with a theocratic frontage’, but the JCPOA laid the path for a peaceful future. Now, as underlined by Kjetil Selvik, Iran will become worse off than before with the US out of the deal. This is a fact that may trigger regional instability.

Economic sanctions – is it effective?

Trump’s administration has decided to pursue another way to not only limit the risk of nuclear power, but also limit the power of Iran. However, as pointed out by Werdy R. Sherman, the U.S administration misunderstood “a basic rule of diplomacy: you have to deal with things as they are, not as you wish them to be”. Are economic sanctions effective? According to Kjetil Selvik and in view of the present context, they are not. In fact, a review of a study in 1997 empirically analysed the effectiveness of economic sanctions from 1914 to 1990. This review led by Robert A. Pape states that “sanctions have succeeded in only 5 of 115 attempts”. Nationalism makes “states willing to endure considerable punishment” (A. Pape, 1998). Thus, we can question the role of economic sanctions as policy instruments. To this question, Pape raises the point that “U.S. leaders often use sanctions not for international coercion but for domestic mobilization, giving peace a chance first in order to disarm criticism of the use of force later. » (A. Pape, 1997). Is this the case of the present situation?

Iran and USA – a future trap?

Henceforth, by walking away from the treaty and imposing economic sanctions back, Americans turn Iran into a nearly impossible problem for the future administrations” says Werdy R.Sherman. For instance, nuclear appetite can grow and tension with Israel and Saudi Arabia may exacerbate. The enemy, instead of pursuing a cooperation-paradigm, may perpetuate and violence may escalate. By moving away from multilateralism through putting sanctions on Iran, Trump might set the ground for regional conflicts which could be difficult for Iran to handle.

Hugo Poitout


  1. Béatrice Giblin (2018) Éditorial. L’Iran : un acteur majeur au Moyen-Orient Hérodote, n° 169, La Découverte, 2e trimestre 2018
  2. Hufbauer, Gary Clyde and J. Schott, Jeffrey, assisted by Kimberly Ann Elliot, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered: History and Current Policy, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: IIE, 1990).
  3. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Report on the Implementation of NPT Safeguards in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” IAEA GOV/2006/15, 27 February 2006, paragraph 53.
  4. International Atomic Energy Agency, « Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme » IAEA GOV/2015/68, 2 December 2015
  5. Marc Lynch (2018) The New Arab Order; Power and Violence in Today’s Middle East, Foreign Affairs
  6. Roger Stern, “The Iranian Petroleum Crisis and United States National Security,” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) 104, no. 1377 (2 January 2007); International Monetary Eund, Islamic Republic of Iran: Statistical Appendix, IME Country Report 04/307 (Washington, DC: International Monetary Eund, 2004)
  7. US Department of State, Diplomacy in Action (2018) – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – website managed by the Bureau of Public Affairs. Retrieved October 20th 2018 on https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/
  8. Werdy R.Sherman (2018) How We Got the Iran Deal And Why We’ll Miss It essay is adapted from her forthcoming book: “Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence”; PublicAffairs

Photo: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

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