US President Donald Trump is preparing to impose on Monday new sanctions against Tehran, after unilaterally withdrawing his country from the international agreement on nuclear Iran, concluded in 2015 in Vienna. Richard Nephew, a researcher at Columbia University and former US State Department Sanctions Policy Coordinator, answered five questions to better understand the situation.
The new US sanctions are aimed primarily at Iran’s energy sector. How will the regime and its economy be affected?
These sanctions will have a significant impact on Iran’s oil exports and on foreign investment in the country. This will aggravate the problems already known to Iran: unemployment, inflation and the devaluation of its currency. The Iranian economy was already in a bad state before the entry into force of these sanctions; it will be even weaker after November 5th.
The impact on the plan will be less clear. Iran’s leaders are used to dealing with economic problems and, more importantly, they exercise considerable control over their security forces. Political quarrels are likely to intensify, but this is unlikely to result in a popular uprising that could succeed.
Iran supports several armed Shiite groups in the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, as well as Houthi rebels in Yemen. Will its influence in the region be affected?
If there is an impact, these sanctions will especially encourage the Iranian regime to make life even more difficult for its opponents in the region [including Saudi Arabia, Ed].
Iran has never abandoned Hezbollah, despite the many sanctions trains and economic problems. The interests of the Iranians in Syria are strategic and, so far, have achieved their goal with the resumption of control on the ground by President Bashar Al-Assad.
As for Yemen, Iran has relatively cheap [and therefore affordable] means of harm against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, causing them to spend a lot of money and damaging their reputation in this conflict. Tehran can maintain all this and will seek to use these means to maximize its influence.
By what means will the Islamic regime try to circumvent American sanctions?
Probably by traditional means: smuggling, false bills of lading, shell companies, etc. Iran can also count on divisions within the international community, especially with Europe, to keep its economy afloat.
How do you perceive the role of the European Union in this crisis?
On the political front, Europe wants to avoid the crisis by finding ways to encourage Iranians to cooperate. At the commercial level, [the suspension] of flights between Europe and Iran will accelerate the difficulties for Iran to remain in the Vienna Nuclear Agreement. But for now, the promise of economic cooperation with Europe may well be the only thing that still holds Iran back from restarting its nuclear program.
The United States had already imposed sanctions on the Ayatollah regime between 2010 and 2016. How are Trump’s new sanctions different?
There is no difference in terms and conditions of explicit application. The difference lies in the operational environment. [Under Barack Obama’s administration], we had the support of the international community, while Trump did not.
We wanted to mobilize our partners, while Trump harassed them. And we wanted a negotiable outcome, while many in the Trump administration emphasized their desire to change the regime in Iran.
This context is important because it reduces the chances of a negotiated outcome, while aggravating tensions with our allies and partners.