The Risk of Sanctions Pushing Iran Over the Brink

With this recent announcement from the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo:

…a look back at American – Iranian history since 1979 is particularly pertinent given that Washington appears to be adding fuel to the long-simmering diplomatic dispute between the two nations.

Thanks to the National Security Archive and its Freedom of Information Act requests, we can look back in time to see how previous administrations in the United States handled the “Iran problem“.  While he Trump Administration has taken a very aggressive (and single-handed) approach to reimplementing sanctions against Iran for its alleged breaches of the JCPOA nuclear agreement, history shows that many of America’s partners in the West have expressed concerns about the implementation of an overly heavy-handed approach to Iran, concerns that are quite apparent in a series of recently released classified documents.  It is important to note that significant portions of many of these documents are redacted, however, from the unredacted portions, we can still get a sense of the split between Europe, some of the Gulf States and the United States when it came to the American-led increase in sanctions against Iran.

When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he inherited a decade and a half of diplomatic vacuum with Iran as well as a sense of deep animosity and layers of sanctions.  In 1996, it was suspected that Iran was involved in the attack on the Khobar barracks in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 Americans and wounded over 350 Americans, Saudis and people from other nations.  Intelligence indicated that the bombing was spearheaded by Hezbollah al Hijaz, a Saudi Shi’a group with ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.  The Clinton Administration moved towards military retribution against Iran but came to the conclusion that even small military operations could trigger a full-scale war.

Since 1984, sanctions have become a key part of America’s approach to Iran with five administrations imposing sanctions; Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama.  In March 1995, Clinton banned all U.S. participation in Iranian petroleum development after Conoco signed a $1 billion contract to develop Iran’s hydrocarbon reserves.  In May 1995, Clinton also broadened the sanctions to include a total ban on trade and investment.  In 1996 under the Clinton Administration, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) with the goal of pressing foreign companies to cease investing in Iran’s oil and gas sector, a major source of income for Iran.  These sanctions were not always viewed positively by America’s partners with some nations expressing great concerns about the potential negative impacts as well as the possibility of unintended consequences that could come back to “bite America in the butt”.

In the release of formerly classified documents from the National Security Archive, we can see a cross section of how United States allies were concerned about the backlash from over-sanctioning Iran.  Here are some examples:

1.) Document 4 – Cable from the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi to the Secretary of State dated June 13, 1995 outlining a conversation held between State Department personnel and an official from the UAE expressing concerns about pushing Iran “over the brink”:

2.) Document 8 – Cable from the Secretary of State to the American Embassies in Tokyo and Canberra dated January 11, 1996 outlining the American position that exerting pressure against Iran using sanctions is intended as a supplement to diplomatic dialogue, not an alternative:

Here is a section looking at what America wants from its allies and explains its planned use of ILSA:

3.) Document 9 – Cable from American Embassy in Paris to the Secretary of State dated March 15, 1996 briefing State on France’s support for critical dialogue with Iran (i.e. maintaining relations while raising issues of concern with Iran).  This document suggests that there was very little support in Europe for American sanctions and that “it would be very dangerous to isolate Iran totally”:

4.) Document 10 – Cable from the American Embassy in Bonn, Germany to the Secretary of State dated March 26, 1996 outlining Germany’s concerns about increased use of sanctions by the United States and how it prefers the use of critical dialogue:

5.) Document 12 – Letter from the Canadian Ambassador to the Under Secretary of State dated August 7, 1996 outlining Canada’s concerns about the implementation of ISLA and its potential negative repercussions:

There are two things that we can learn from the release of 20 year old diplomatic cables from the Department of State regarding Iran:

1.) The repeated use of economic sanctions against Iran has accomplished almost nothing and the use of tougher sanctions against Iran’s leadership and its people has not been backed by Europe and other nations in the Middle East who are gravely concerned about war breaking out in their corner of the world should Iran’s political and religious leaders feel that they are being backed into a corner.

2.) The Trump Administration could well learn from the diplomatic failures of the past.  It is interesting to see how Washington’s approach to Iran over the past six  has changed very little over the past 25 years proving the old adage that some people are doomed to repeat the same mistakes that they’ve made in the past, expecting different results every time.

The one thing that Washington has repeatedly ignored over the last seven decades is the fact that Iran is a sovereign state, a nation that has the right to make its own decisions whether Washington agrees with them or not.  Given the growing ties between Russia, China and Iran, further interference in Iran’s affairs will only serve to feed the growing divide between the nation that has become used to being the world’s sole superpower for the last three decades and the nations that are moving closer to equalizing the geopolitical and military playing field. 

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