abstract 3d illustration of cracked Iran flag and oil barrels. Image; iStock

The imposition of unremitting sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration pressures countries – because of their vulnerabilities to the American-dominated financial system – to end oil imports from Tehran. The fresh sanctions coming into effect on November 4 invoke a sense of American unilateralism, particularly in light of Washington’s refusal to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

It is noteworthy that the ICJ, responding to an Iranian petition, ruled that Washington must ensure its sanctions do not affect humanitarian aid or civil aviation safety. Reacting to this, the US withdrew from an ICJ protocol and pulled out of a 1955 friendship treaty with Iran. Washington sees its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the imposition of fresh sanctions as the only way to end the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism, missile development programs and other subversive activities.

Iran has been accused by the US of being involved in “malign activities” such as supporting the despotic Assad regime in Syria, as well as for militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban.  However, it is fanciful thinking that sanctions could be targeted at the regime without hurting the Iranian population.

The American sanctions on Iran are unilateral because they have not been endorsed by the other parties involved. The European allies of the US are inclined to continue business as usual with Iran, much like Russia and China. As per reports, they perceive more danger arising from the American sanctions, which they argue would embolden Iran to continue its nuclear program and heighten the risk of armed clashes between Iran, on the one hand, and Israel and Arab allies of the US on the other.

Further, European countries are not willing to accept the collateral damage that the trade sanctions on Iran would inflict on them. The European countries are reportedly devising ways to work around the US dollar-dominated financial and banking system. They are also willing to engage with Iran in trade and commerce through barter transactions that could eliminate the need to rely on traditional methods.

It is clear that the process of arriving at the decision to increase sanctions on Iran was a unilateral move made without any US effort to persuade other countries to support it. European countries are not convinced of its merits, and Russia and China are suspicious of the American motive underlying its withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the imposition of fresh sanctions despite Teheran’s adherence to the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

European countries are not willing to accept the collateral damage that the trade sanctions on Iran would inflict on them

Because the deal was effective at containing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the US move is bound to make American policies in the Middle East appear suspect. The US could have pursued negotiations, forged new deals and announced fresh incentives to get EU countries, Russia and China on board.

US policymakers need to understand that Washington is not operating in a unipolar world where everything can be designed according to its policies. On the other hand, the American unilateral approach is likely to face stiff resistance from the prevailing complicated international system. It is worth recalling that around the time then-president George W Bush included Iran in his “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address in January 2002, the European Union foreign ministers reached an agreement to open talks with Iran on a trade and cooperation pact in June of the same year. The Sheer Energy Company of Canada agreed to a US$80 million development project with the National Iranian Oil Company notwithstanding the American objection to it. The American decision to go to war in Iraq caused friction between the US and European allies such as Germany and France.

From a geopolitical perspective, Iran not only provides the shortest and cheapest pipeline route to transfer Central Asian energy resources to the world market, it also aspires to become a regional power by facilitating oil and gas transit,  as well as integrating its market with the landlocked Central Asian region. However, Washington sought to deprive Tehran of that privileged role and quickly invigorated its efforts to discuss proposals for alternative pipeline routes with Central Asian states such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline through Turkey and the TAP pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan, which became TAPI later with India joining the project. Both routes were planned to bypass Iran and Russia.

The imposition of stringent American sanctions on Iran can be construed as a geopolitical move to marginalize Iran in energy politics by preventing it from laying down the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. It is noteworthy that in February, the Trump administration began laying the US-funded Trans-Afghan pipeline, which is being pursued within the rubric of the “peace pipeline” project.

Iran is coordinating its efforts in Syria with Russia to strengthen the Assad regime, and the alleged Iranian role in bolstering Sunni groups such as the Taliban and Hamas points to the fact that Tehran wants to enhance its support-base, cutting across religious and ethnic lines to challenge US regional hegemony.

It seems that the Iran-US stand-off in Afghanistan, as well as other areas ranging from the Middle East to the Central Asian region, will likely continue so long as Washington does not recognize Iranian claims in the expanded region and Tehran does not reconcile its ambitions with American geopolitical interests.

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.

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