January 02

U.S. Announces New Sanctions Against Iran: P5+1 Negotiations Will Likely Suffer

The U.S. recently announced that it has decided to enact new sanctions against Iran; potentially sabotaging any hopes that the P5+1 had of reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. This move raises the question of why the U.S. has decided to potentially sabotage something which may have had a host of long term benefits. Could it be related to the failed prisoner swap? Could it be related to behind the scenes pressure from the GCC? Perhaps the U.S. is afraid of preemptive Israeli military action following such a move? Whatever the reason, these new sanctions are certain to negate any progress the P5+1 has achieved. In response to these new sanctions, Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham stated, “At a time negotiations are underway with P5+1, such a move raises doubts about America’s intentions and violates the good will principles.” While negotiations have not been easy, the world has seen an unprecedented level of cooperation from Tehran over its nuclear program since Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president. Enacting sanctions at such a crucial moment, will likely have disastrous consequences; creating a roadblock for continued negotiations.

Recently, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaeia, the lawyer of a U.S. citizen jailed in Iran – Amir Hekmati – announced that the U.S. has been negotiating through the Swiss embassy to conduct a prisoner exchange with Iran to secure Hekmati’s release. Both Washington and Tehran have denied these reports. According to Washington, while the U.S. has called for Hekmati’s release, it has done so on purely humanitarian grounds and has not entered into any arrangements with Tehran to secure Hekmati’s release. Tehran claims that Hekmati, a former Marine reservist, is a CIA spy. Hekmati was sentenced to death by Iran in 2012, but the decision was reversed in April 2014, and Hekmati was sentenced to 10 years in prison. It’s possible that recent sanctions against Iran are a response to the supposed failed prisoner swap, or in retaliation for Iran’s refusal to release Hekmati. While the incarceration of a U.S. citizen by Iran is alarming, to derail nuclear talks as a result would be reckless and highly unlikely. The U.S. could have easily included the release of Hekmati in the terms of the nuclear agreement, and Iran would have likely acquiesced. In addition, as U.S. Iran relations thawed, it would have been likely that Hekmati’s release could have been secured in the very near future. While it is possible that Hekmati’s incarceration is the underlying reason for new sanctions, it is highly unlikely.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has always been wary of increased Iranian influence in the Middle East. This stems from the fear of Sunni Arab states that Iran will empower Shiite’s in the region; leading to political instability. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the GCC became extremely nervous, as this meant that the Shiites would likely take charge, and as a result, Iraq and Iran would likely develop a close partnership. This is why, shortly after the fall of Saddam, the GCC began funding al-Qaeda and its affiliates with the hope of preventing the establishment of a Shiite-led government. The GCC has likely become alarmed at the level of cooperation – both economic and military – between Iraq and Iran which has begun to take place, and it is highly likely that the GCC is pressuring the U.S. to prevent Iran from shedding its pariah status. This is quite possible. Currently the top oil exporters to the U.S. are Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. In October of 2014, the U.S. imported 3,452kbpd from Canada, 834kbpd from Mexico, and 826kbpd from Saudi Arabia. However, when we combine the exports emanating from the GCC, they account for 12.8 percent of U.S. oil imports; making the GCC the number two exporter of oil to the U.S. It is quite possible that behind the scenes, the GCC is using this as leverage to coerce the U.S. to continue its hardline stance on Iran.

Finally, Israel and Iran are mortal enemies. Iran has continued to state that it seeks the destruction of Israel (Rouhani has continued this rhetoric), and Israel has continued to take this threat seriously; even hinting at possible military action against Iran should its nuclear program expand. Both countries have been engaging in a covert war against one another for quite some time. Iran continues to use its proxies – most notably Hezbollah and Hamas – to attack Israeli targets, and Israel has conducted numerous covert operations against Iranian targets.  The fact that Israel is the number one U.S. ally in the Middle East makes it quite possible (and highly likely) that Israel is putting pressure on the U.S. to avoid any potential warming of diplomatic relations with Iran. As leverage, they may be threating military action against Iran (in the interest of national security) should Iran’s influence in the region expand; something which is certain to take place if sanctions against Iran are lifted. It is likely that the U.S/Israeli partnership is influencing U.S. negotiations with Iran.

In conclusion, while it may be possible that the failed prisoner exchange between Iran and the U.S. served as the catalyst for the emplacement of new sanctions on Iran, it is most likely that behind the scenes pressure from the GCC and Israel are the primary motive behind these sanctions. The GCC fear of increased Shiite influence in the Middle East – and the resulting political instability it will likely create – has likely led the GCC to use its oil exports to the U.S. as leverage to influence U.S. policy on Iran. Israel (the most important ally of the U.S. in the Middle East), has likely used its political connections within the U.S., along with the threat of preemptive military action against Iran, as leverage to influence U.S. policy as well. However, regardless of the reason behind these new sanction, they will be just as harmful; preventing further dialogue between Tehran and Washington and negating the progress of the P5+1 negotiations.