Houthi militants ride on the back of a patrol truck in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on December 14, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Khaled Abdullah
Houthi militants ride on the back of a patrol truck in Yemen's capital Sanaa on December 14, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Khaled Abdullah

On March 21, the US state department announced fresh sanctions on 30 individuals and entities involved in the supply of weapons and weapons-related technology to Iran, Syria and North Korea. The purpose was to prevent these countries – especially Iran, the most “destabilizing” force in the region – from creating any further problems.

The sanctions imposed pursuant to the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSNA) will remain in effect for two years.
The official statement specifically mentions Iran as the main trouble-maker, stating: “Iran’s proliferation of missile technology significantly contributes to regional tensions. As an example, we have seen indications Iran is providing missile support to the Houthis in Yemen. This destabilizing activity only serves to escalate regional conflicts further and poses a significant threat to regional security. We will continue to take steps to address Iran’s missile development and production and sanction entities and individuals involved in supporting these programs under US law.”

The fresh sanctions have come at a time when a) the US and Saudi Arabia are inching closer to redefining their relationship and, under the changing dimensions of conflict in the region, establishing a “common policy”, and b) when the US has already asked, in line with Israel’s demands, for Iran’s complete exit from Syria in order for a political solution to the crisis to be reached.

The imposition of sanctions is very much in line with US CentCom commander Joseph Votel’s view of Iran as the most important threat to US interests in the region.

While the official statement doesn’t mention Iran’s role in Syria, recent developments indicate that its curtailment is a priority for the US. This is happening on multiple levels.

For instance, in addition to the new sanctions, Kassem Tajeddine, a wealthy Lebanese man, was recently arrested in Morocco and has now been extradited to the US to face charges of funding Hezbollah.

On March 25, nearly eight years after the US named him a “specially designated global terrorist” but only three days after the imposition of sanctions, Tajeddine was formally charged in the US federal court.
According to various reports appearing in US media, he remains a key financer of Hezbollah and the latter might be prompted into retaliating.

Critics of the US policy have questioned the logic of imposing sanctions on Iran and Syria, the two most important countries engaged in fighting the terror of Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

How effective, or pertinent, is it to attempt to “disarm” countries who are fighting a terror network the US itself has vowed to fight to the end?

Curiously enough, the US State Department has, thus far, stopped short of imposing sanctions on individuals and entities, reportedly based in the Gulf, that have been financing and providing weapons to groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Hence the contention that after the US president was highly critical during his election campaign of Saudi Arabia’s policies in the region, the policy of sanctioning Riyadh’s avowed enemies marks a fundamental about-turn.

This policy also contradicts the official US narrative on Assad’s future in Syria. US officials have emphasized that the question of Assad’s future is no longer the agenda, but the fact that fresh sanctions have been imposed on entities providing weapons to him suggests they remain eager to stop him from reclaiming territory, a position that puts the US at odds with not only Syria itself, but also Russia and China (Note: the majority of individuals and entities banned are Chinese).

And while the US cannot possibly succeed in curtailing all sources of weapon supplies to Syria – or indeed Iran – Washington’s loud calls for defeating ISIS remain dubious at best and self-contradictory at worst. For while it may be serious about fighting terror, it is equally serious about not allowing Syria and Iran to firmly establish control in territories they are in the middle of liberating from ISIS.

The US is fighting simultaneously on two fronts. The longer it takes to reconcile its conflicting objectives, the more difficult it will become to eradicate terror networks, the real enemies of humanity.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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