Last week, the Trump administration decided to up its ante by designating sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, only weeks after doing the same to Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran’s supreme leader. With all the plausible threats that Iran may seem to pose to the U.S., sanctioning Iran’s top officials may not be the best way to help with bilateral relations nor help smooth over the current feud between the two countries.
In order to shed further light on this situation from both perspectives, DC Insider spoke with Michael Pregent, Senior Fellow in Intelligence Terrorism & Radical Ideologies Middle East & North Africa Defense Strategy at the Hudson Institute and Barbara Slavin, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
“Imposing sanctions against a foreign minister means failure," Zarif stated in response to the recently imposed sanctions against him. Could he have been right? Was this the politically correct move for the U.S. to make or was it a mistake? According to Slavin, the move was far from diplomatic.
“It is certainly true that resorting to sanctions against Iran’s chief diplomat is a counterproductive step. If published reports are accurate, sanctions were also used as a kind of blackmail to get Zarif to agree to a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office which Zarif rejected. The entire U.S. policy toward Iran – quitting the nuclear deal and imposing an oil embargo on the country – has clearly failed to achieve its stated goal of a ‘better’ deal or a less aggressive Iran. Instead, the JCPOA is on life support and Iran is seizing tankers in the Persian Gulf. It’s hard to define that as ‘success.”
The entire U.S. policy toward Iran – quitting the nuclear deal and imposing an oil embargo on the country – has clearly failed to achieve its stated goal of a ‘better’ deal or a less aggressive Iran | Barbara Slavin
When faced with the same question, Pregent countered by simply bashing Zarif.
“The U.S. imposed sanctions on a failure of a foreign minister - Zarif is Baghdad Bob with one exception, Zarif believes what he says - he's part of the problem.”
But what are the implications of this move against Zarif? In Slavin’s opinion, the consequences of this action may lead to negative developments between the two countries come next month.
“It is clearly a blow to prospects for new negotiations. I am waiting to see if this will keep him from coming to the UN in September for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Theoretically, the U.S., as a host country, has to allow him to come but it could do so at the last minute or in an extremely humiliating way that would prompt him to stay home. That would preclude important side conversations on de-escalating the crisis.”
For Pregent, bilateral relations don’t seem to be much of significance as long as Iran continues to be singled out.
“[The implications are] huge for Iran, not so much for the U.S. - The U.S. is rejecting the regime and the regime is growing more isolated with each provocation in the Strait of Hormuz.”
Over the past month, Iran has seized three foreign ships, one in the past few days. Why has it been so difficult for the U.S. to secure these waters and what is happening with the return of Operation Sentinel?
From Slavin’s perspective, the U.S. could’ve prevented all of this from happening by not dismissing the JCPOA.
“While the U.S. has overwhelming conventional military superiority, Iran excels at asymmetric operations in the waters off its long Persian Gulf coastline. There is very little the U.S. can do to stop these activities without a large multinational presence. So far, most other countries – the latest was Australia -- are refusing to take part in Operation Sentinel for fear that that will only lead to a military conflict. Most other countries blame the U.S. for starting the crisis by quitting the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions.”
From Pregent’s perspective, the continuous seizing of foreign ships by the IRGC is beneficial to the U.S.
“It helps the U.S. position each time the IRGC-Navy seizes an oil tanker in international waters - this latest seizure of an Iraqi oil tanker smuggling fuel is likely an oil tanker that's part of the IRGC's smuggling operation. In other words, a BS public relations stunt. Iran will be able to prove it's smuggling because it's part of their smuggling network."
“While the U.S. has overwhelming conventional military superiority, Iran excels at asymmetric operations in the waters off its long Persian Gulf coastline." - Barbara Slavin
U.S. President Donald Trump has been referring to the never-ending sanctions on Iran as “maximum pressure” which begs the question: Is “maximum pressure” the solution to any country that doesn’t abide by U.S. regulations? e.g. The “maximum pressure” that is being put on the Palestinians by the U.S./Israel? Slavin seems to believe that this isn’t the solution.
“Sanctions only work when they are truly multilateral and have clear and achievable goals. U.S. sanctions lack both and thus are doomed to fail. Lewis Carroll once wrote, ‘When you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.’ What is the U.S. goal? A change in Iranian policies, a new nuclear deal, regime change, containment? The answer differs depending on who in the administration you ask. That sort of strategic incoherence cannot bring positive results.”
Meanwhile, Pregent seems to believe that these continuous sanctions are the solution.
“The ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is working - it's making Iran lash out and by lashing it out it shores up the U.S. position that Iran is a hostile nation that needs to change.” - Michael Pregent
“The ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is working - it's making Iran lash out and by lashing it out it shores up the U.S. position that Iran is a hostile nation that needs to change.”
One question remains: Does the U.S. have any sentiment towards the citizens of these countries that are being put under “maximum pressure”? In other words, does the U.S. find it diplomatic to punish a people based on its government?
“Despite claims to care about Iranians, the Trump administration has shown its hostility to these people – indeed to Muslims and non-whites – since its inception. The travel ban ordered by Trump in his first week in office disproportionately impacted Iranians and the sanctions have hurt ordinary people far more than the government or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The policy is cruel, counterproductive and the opposite of real diplomacy,” Slavin emphasized.
“This is about the Islamic Republic not the people of Iran" - Michael Pregent
“This is about the Islamic Republic not the people of Iran - the people want regime change and want the sanctions to mean something - they want a strategy behind the sanctions. Pompeii's 12 steps are the strategy - if the regime abides by even one, it will have severe consequences for regime survival,” Pregent suggested.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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