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November 4, 2018 10:02 am

What Will New Sanctions Mean for Iran?

avatar by Joel Sonkin

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Iran’s Revolutionary guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari speaks during a conference to mark the martyrs of terrorism in Tehran September 6, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl.

With President Donald Trump’s sanctions against Iran’s vital oil exports being reimposed on November 5, tensions are likely to escalate between the United States and the Islamic Republic. How exactly the mullahs decide to respond to their economy being hit with crippling sanctions remains to be seen. But what’s striking about US policy is that the White House’s pressure campaign is heating up just as the US military is scaling back its presence in the Middle East.

According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, the US military is in the process of shifting some of its most significant strategic assets out of the region. Most notably, there has not been a US aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf since the Theodore Roosevelt left for the Pacific in March, the longest time in two decades that a carrier hasn’t traveled in those waters. Further, the US is pulling several Patriot missile-defense systems out of the region in what senior military officials have described as a realignment of capabilities away from the Middle East, and toward China and Russia.

And so, with the US more short-handed than usual in the Middle East, President Trump will be leaning heavily on regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to do the heavy lifting on the ground against Iran while the White House wages full-blown economic warfare against the Islamic Republic.

As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, the White House is aiming to drive Iran’s oil exports down to zero, effectively choking off revenues that the regime uses to wage war across the Middle East and organize its terror networks across the globe. Once sanctions are reimposed, countries that do business with the US will have to stop importing Iranian oil. Otherwise, they will face US sanctions themselves.

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While President Trump is more often talked about for his impulses than for his long-term outlook, it wasn’t by accident that he made Jerusalem and Riyadh the first two stops on his first trip abroad as president, and then spent the first two years of his presidency emboldening these two longtime allies. When the president looks at Israel and Saudi Arabia, he sees no daylight between their core interests and America’s biggest priority in the Middle East: pushing back against Iranian aggression across the region. This means that the White House will be counting on these two allies to buttress Washington’s pressure campaign and help protect American interests in the Middle East.

One of the biggest factors that has perpetuated the bloodshed in Syria and Yemen has been Iran’s ability to continue to finance its wars there. It was not a coincidence that the mullahs were able to make significant gains in both countries after Barack Obama loosened sanctions on the Islamic Republic at the end of 2013, as part of his interim nuclear deal. Of course, there was then another $150 billion in sanctions relief in July 2015 as part of the final nuclear accord. After receiving access to this money, the mullahs were able to go on the offensive against the Syrian opposition and help save their ally Bashar al-Assad, nearly solidifying their so-called land bridge stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

And in Yemen, the mullahs transformed the Houthi rebels from a ragtag militia into an efficient fighting force, with training from Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Of course, the mullahs were also able to supply the Houthis with the ballistic missiles that were then launched at Saudi Arabia.

It has been reported that Iran has spent as much as $100 billion on the war in Syria since 2013. Although we’ll never know, we can only wonder whether half a million Syrians would have been slaughtered by the butcher Bashar al-Assad had his patrons in Tehran not been able to finance his genocidal effort, leaving Russia as his only main sponsor. With the Syrian opposition now practically decimated, Iranian funds have been going not to the rebuilding of Syria, but instead to installing a vast military infrastructure with underground weapons factories, fundamentally transforming the balance of power in the region and opening another front from which to threaten Israel.

Similarly, in Yemen, although Iranian efforts there haven’t been nearly as expensive as Syria, the consequences have been no less significant. And despite Saudi pushback, the Islamic Republic, flush with cash, has been able to consistently replenish the Houthis with the necessary weapons to keep the war going.

The White House is hoping that its economic warfare, in concert with the Israeli and Saudi military campaigns, can make a more permanent dent in the Iranian war machine. The Israelis will continue to target Iranian facilities in Syria, while the Saudis and their coalition of Sunni Gulf states continue to hit the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, inhibiting Iran’s ability to project power on to the Red Sea and towards the Suez Canal.

As for Iran’s nuclear program, the regime’s style is to cheat slowly, in increments, rather than to make a mad dash for the bomb. And ever since President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May, the regime has actually stayed in the agreement, maintaining restrictions on its centrifuges and enriched uranium. This means that the nuclear issue is, for now, a secondary priority behind weakening Iran’s strategic position across the region. Moreover, if US sanctions are partially intended to get Iran back to the negotiating table, the White House is not expecting a breakthrough to take place anytime soon.

In considering President Trump’s pressure campaign against the mullahs, it must be said that Iran’s wars across the Middle East are not about sectarianism or some Sunni-Shia divide. Nor is Iran’s aggression towards Israel driven purely by antisemitism. The regime’s violence across the region is all part of its war against the United States. As far as the mullahs are concerned, Israel and Saudi Arabia are just proxies of the US that need to be dealt with in order to defeat America in the Middle East.

Indeed, the regime in Tehran has been at war with the United States since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. It was the mullahs who were responsible for the attack on the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis, during which 52 American diplomats were held for 444 days; the killing of 241 Americans in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983; the attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19 US Air Force personnel; and the improvised explosive devices used to kill nearly a thousand American troops at the height of the Iraq War. Over the last four decades, the United States has arguably had no greater foe than the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It’s worth noting here that if there’s one thing the vast majority of the American people have been able to agree on over the past decade, it’s that the United States should not be getting overextended in the Middle East. That said, President Trump’s approach of empowering regional allies to do the heavy lifting while Washington wages economic warfare in an intense pressure campaign on Iran should be seen as threading the needle right down the middle of American domestic politics.

This should come as a surprise to no one, because, as Mike Doran has written, candidate Trump’s foreign policy message was that he would do more for American interests around the world than Barack Obama was able to do, but with less blood and treasure than was incurred under George W. Bush. Whether President Trump is able to achieve his goals in the Middle East remains to be seen, but his approach is very much in line with the promises he made on the campaign trail.

Joel Sonkin lives in New York City and writes about US foreign policy in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @JoelSonkin.

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