Declassified Documents Reveal Weakness of Unilateral Iran Sanctions

The Trump Administration’s May 2018 decision to pull the US out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) made headlines with its promise of unprecedented sanctions against Iran. Strong rhetoric aside, President Trump’s stated policy outcomes are consistent with those of his predecessors: preventing Iran from advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities, discouraging support for terrorism and other unsavory regional activities, and curbing human rights abuses.

In light of these similarities, and on the heels of the re-imposition of post-JCPOA sanctions on August 7, the National Security Archive’s recent release of declassified cables from President Bill Clinton’s State Department is extremely timely. The documents are particularly useful when compared to President Barack Obama’s efforts a decade later, and illuminate the pitfalls of the Trump approach to Iran sanctions.

Trump treats sanctions as a silver bullet. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that the administration would only consider lifting the re-imposed sanctions if it sees “enormous change” from the regime in Tehran. In other words, the sanctions by themselves are meant to create sufficient pressure to induce Trump’s desired outcomes in Tehran.

Presidents Clinton and Obama, on the other hand, used sanctions as one of several tools in their toolkit. According to one of the cables released by the National Security Archive, the Clinton administration characterized sanctions as part and parcel with engagement, calling on US allies in 1996 to “add a component of economic pressure to their dialogue as a means to make it more effective.”

Similarly, Jake Sullivan, a senior advisor to Secretary Clinton during the Obama administration, has stated in interviews that the standard for assessing the efficacy of sanctions was not how much the Iranian economy suffered, but whether sanctions encouraged Tehran to engage in productive negotiations with the US.

The Clinton and Obama administrations imposed sanctions to create pressure to encourage and enhance diplomacy—with the hope that dialogue, in turn, could lead to desirable changes in Iranian policies. Relying on sanctions alone as a blunt instrument to achieve foreign policy objectives without serious complementary efforts at diplomacy—especially for a country that is notoriously resistant to foreign manipulation—overlooks the inextricable dual roles of pressure and persuasion when dealing with Tehran.

History also casts doubt on the Trump administration’s apparent assumption that maximum pressure will yield maximum results. In 1995, Clinton implemented a series of limited sanctions against only the most sensitive sectors of the Iranian economy, such as oil investment and weapons. Other cables posted by the National Security Archive describe the view of some US allies that these targeted sanctions were working. For instance, an official from the United Arab Emirates argued to the US ambassador that sanctions pressure directly influenced Iran to lift threats against British-based author Salman Rushdie, and to take fewer aggressive military measures in a dispute over islands in the Persian Gulf. Yet the same Emirati warned against pursuing more restrictive sanctions for fear that excessive pressure could push Tehran “over the brink,” provoking retaliatory measures that could spell trouble for the whole region.

This oft-overlooked period in US-Iran relations suggests that limited, targeted sanctions may be more conducive to encouraging positive changes on matters such as human rights and regional security. Pressure for pressure’s sake poses little strategic advantage, but rather could invite further aggression and resolve on the part of the regime—as demonstrated by President Hassan Rouhani’s recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz after Trump threatened to stop Iranian oil exports.

Also worth questioning is Trump’s apparent lack of interest in working with the international community to formulate a multilateral approach to Iran sanctions. The historical record provides additional insights on this matter. The documents released by the Archive include 1995 cables in which officials from the UK and the Philippines explain their governments’ refusal to participate in Clinton’s Iran sanctions on the grounds that they cannot work unless “the world as a whole” is willing to follow suit.

The Clinton administration also faced sharp criticism from US allies after it signed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in 1996, which traded targeted sanctions for a blanket ban on investment in Iran’s oil industry. A letter from the Canadian ambassador to the US expresses Canada’s “strong objection” and condemns ILSA’s “unilateral and extraterritorial” nature. Cables from officials in Germany, Britain and France echo this disapproval, telling US counterparts that the total isolation of Iran runs contrary to European security and financial interests and could inhibit cooperation with the US on other key issues of mutual concern. Nonetheless, the Clinton administration spent the better part of the late 1990s continuing to urge allies to, at the very least, not increase trade with Iran.

Obama faced similar pushback against his efforts to implement a sanctions regime against Tehran a decade later. Though he had European support for sanctions, he expended an enormous amount of diplomatic energy convincing other nations to suspend trade with Iran—even going so far as to subtly threaten Japan and South Korea with sanctions if they did not comply. That the administration was willing to threaten close US allies to participate in unpopular Iran sanctions illustrates the strength of its conviction that sanctions could not work without wide support.

Though the documents do not necessarily reveal any fundamentally new insights about Iran sanctions, they provide a timely and necessary reminder that, under both Clinton and Obama, unilateral sanctions were as ineffective as they were unpopular. Garnering international support for Iran sanctions was a risky though necessary battle that required attention, resources and pressure—but also tact—for both administrations.

If the Trump administration is serious about encouraging positive changes in the Iranian regime’s actions, the lessons of recent history suggest it ought to rethink its approach. Sanctions are not a one-stop-shop to achieving US interests in Tehran.

Danielle Siegel is a member of the Iran-US Relations Project at the nongovernmental National Security Archive based at The George Washington University.  The views expressed here are her own.

Image: Secretary Michael Pompeo announces the creation of the Iran Action Group in the Press Briefing Room, at the Department of State, August 16, 2018. [State Department Photo by Michael Gross / Public Domain]