Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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The US and Iran: Playing With Fire


Iranian police during protests in the country, Jan. 2, 2018. After Trump’s recent reimposition of US sanctions against Iran, the UN Security Council appears wary of responding to the actions, for good reason. CREATIVE COMMONS

With the recent reimposition of its sanctions against Iran, the United States is clearly violating its obligations under the United Nations resolution that endorsed the Iran nuclear agreement. While the Security Council has taken note and Iran has formally responded, urging the UN “to keep the United States accountable,” no party to the agreement has requested an official meeting in the Council to discuss US actions — sidestepping an opportunity for the other 14 member nations to weigh in.

But the Council’s inaction also prevents the US delegation to the UN from trying to veto or force decisions that could ignite an open conflict with Iran.

Preferring to keep the default position — the continuation of the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, without the US — props up the deal for now. The seeming inaction also keeps the remaining signatories, including Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, united.

Those unfamiliar with Security Council politics may find such a nonconfrontational strategy closer to a head-in-the-sand approach. “It is the only realistic way forward, where we don’t risk hardliners in Iran or the United States to escalate the tensions,” one member of a Security Council delegation, requesting anonymity, said.

Preventing an escalation will, however, soon turn into the Council’s most urgent concern.

President Trump’s executive decision on Aug. 6 — reimposing unilateral sanctions by declaring Iran’s behavior a “national emergency” for America — is the first shot. Further sanctions, most notably an embargo against Iranian oil deliveries, have been announced for November.

It is unclear how these aggressive steps will play out. Major users of Iranian oil like Japan and South Korea will most likely not risk infuriating Trump. But China, India and Turkey have all said they would ignore the US sanctions. The European Union has adopted a blocking statute that protects European companies from financial losses caused by America’s sanctions. While this is no help for global giants like Total, Airbus and Siemens, thousands of midsize companies with no exposure to the US or the US dollar may reject future business in the US for Euro-denominated and European-backed business with Iran.

Still, plenty of pain will be felt in Iran, as new sanctions are now worsening the dire straits there and slowing an economic recovery already stymied by corruption, nepotism and a steep decline in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial. Washington’s regime engineers apparently hope that intolerable consequences among the most vulnerable people — children, the elderly, the poor — will sow unrest and eventually the abdication of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

And regime change, despite Trump’s pledge to achieve “world peace, nothing less, with Iran sanctions,” seems increasingly to be the goal of the administration, apparently in favor of leadership by the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) or by the National Council of Iran, which is led by the deceased shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi. The authors of a recent Weekly Standard article envision another US intervention in the Middle East with CIA incursions, surreptitious support of insurgent and opposition groups and military confrontation with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah operating outside of Iran.

The MEK, which operates in exile, has been called a cult, consisting partly of former terrorists. Yet Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has warmly embraced it, addressing the group and accepting its speaking fees. Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, has served as its paid lobbyist.

The shah and his dynasty are still reviled by most Iranians for the corruption and atrocities of his secret service, the Savak.

Washington’s preferred future leaders of Iran actually fit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s description of the current Iranian regime as resembling “the mafia more than a government.”

Predictably, the administration’s actions are already triggering rally-round-the-flag radicalization in Iran. “Any military threat against the Islamic Republic of Iran would get the harshest response,” said Gen. Ramezan Sharif of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, a warning that even Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, felt compelled to tolerate.

The Revolutionary Guards’ news agency, Tasnim, cited the conservative Assembly of Experts’ call to Rouhani “to stop lip service and start addressing the people’s financial hardships and particularly the problems of the underprivileged strata.” The reprimand is meant to tell Rouhani to replace his moderate ministers for labor, economy, housing and mining with more pugnacious politicians.

Indeed, Rouhani has already threatened that if the US oil embargo causes a major decline in revenue for his country, it will retaliate by imposing a steep price on the global economy and security. Under such circumstances, “no other country in the region can export oil either,” he said during a recent trip to Europe. After Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions this month, the website of the Supreme Leader Khamenei explicitly endorsed Rouhani’s warning as “important remarks that reflect the policy and the approach of [Iran’s] system. The duty of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to strictly pursue stances taken by the president.”

In other words, Rouhani and the Ayatollah are prepared for a fight, much as Kim Jong Un uses North Korea’s artillery positions to threaten South Korea.

In response to a military strike or a US naval blockade against Iranian oil exports that would substantially affect Iran’s economy, Rouhani is ready to cut off 30 percent of global oil and gas supplies. Iran could either block the Strait of Hormuz to prevent oil tankers from exiting the Persian Gulf or its Guards could send missile strikes on the oil terminals of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Iran’s navy is now conducting military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz with a flotilla of speedboats.

The question returns to the Security Council: How can it prevent the veto-wielding power of the US from proceeding with its economic warfare, which could easily turn into a global economic cataclysm and perhaps worse?

The P5 Monitor column examines the actions of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. We welcome your comments: or in the space below.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Enrico Carisch is the co-author of the just-released book “The Evolution of UN Sanctions: From a Tool of Warfare to a Tool of Peace, Security and Human Rights.” He is also a co-founder and partner of Compliance and Capacity Skills International (CCSI), a New York-based group specializing in all aspects of sanctions regimes (

Among other organizations, Carisch has worked for the UN Security Council as a financial and natural-resources monitor and investigator on sanctions violations by individuals and entities in Africa and elsewhere. Previously, he was an investigative journalist for print and TV for 25 years.

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Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs


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