Russia and Global Security Risks
Donald Trump’s Weaponization of Sanctions Undermines Diplomacy, US Alliances and the Stabilization of the Middle East

The MENA region is likely to experience renewed upheavals in the not too distant future and given that any conflict or turmoil will impact European interests in a much graver fashion than the US, China and even Russia, such efforts would represent the bare minimum of what one should expect from Brussels and those EU institutions that promote Europe as a “global actor” on the world stage, writes Andrea Dessì, Head of the Italian Foreign Policy Programme & Senior Fellow, Mediterranean and Middle East Programme, Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)

Since coming to office four years ago, Donald Trump has overseen an unprecedented expansion in the use of punitive economic measures to advance his administration’s agenda, both at home and abroad. Sanctions may have proven tactically effective in certain policy domains, but in the long run such measures are counterproductive, accelerating the US’s retrenchment from the international stage, undermining US alliances and actively contributing to the destabilization of the Middle East. 

The latest showdown at the UN Security Council (UNSC), with the Trump administration failing to garner support from other council members to prolong the UN arms embargo on Iran, is only the most recent example of the harm done to the US’s international standing. The Dominican Republic alone sided with the US, while Washington’s closest allies in Europe consciously looked the other way, independently from their shared support for an extension of the arms embargo. They were joined by other smaller states which one would generally expect to vote in line with the US, including Vietnam, Niger, Estonia and the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as Indonesia, which holds the rotating presidency of the UNSC. 

Not content with this humiliating defeat, the Trump administration has doubled down, seeking to trigger international ‘snapback’ sanctions on Iran via a new vote at the UNSC. Predictably, other council members, including France, the UK and Germany – European signature parties to the Iran nuclear deal, or Join Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it is formally called – have rejected the move, joining Russia and China in arguing that Washington has no authority to trigger the return of UN sanctions due to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA back in May 2018. 

Promising to proceed undeterred, Washington is now threatening to employ its financial and political weight to force unwilling states to tow the US line, a policy which is enthusiastically embraced by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but opposed by the wide majority of international states and organizations. 

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Sanctions and Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal’

Financial carpet-bombing” is the term used by The Economist in a November 2019 article outlining Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of sanctions, which the US president has utilized in far greater fashion compared to his predecessors. Taking advantage of the US’s market size, unrivaled dominance over the financial system and the dollar’s internationalization as the global currency of choice, the Trump administration has deployed economic sanctions on a wide variety of states, individuals and organizations.

Indeed, if one was searching for elements to define something akin to a Trump doctrine in foreign affairs, economic sanctions and more general financial muscle-flexing would certainly come close to the top.

Add to this a tendency to weaponize the US’s influence over international trade through the imposition or threat of imposition of tariffs, as well as more brute actions such as the interception of oil exports from Iran to Venezuela, the pressure on Germany to end its Nord Stream 2 energy project, or threats to sanction and/or disinvest from companies, state bodies or even international organizations that recognize a Palestinian state or chose to boycott Israel or Israeli settlements, and a clearer picture emerges of the way sanctions are being used in multiple foreign and domestic policy domains in the US. 

Yet, it is the adoption of extraterritorial sanctions – sanctions that target any entity of a third country doing business with a sanctioned entity –, that have arguably done the most damage to the US’s international standing, particularly vis-à-vis Europe and the broader Transatlantic relationship. Secondary (or extraterritorial) sanctions represent a crude means to bypass diplomacy and coalition building, using and abusing the US’s international influence to threaten other states into complacency in what may be termed a new iteration of former President George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” approach to foreign affairs.  

US sanctions and oil embargo on the Islamic Republic of Iran is obviously the most prominent example of Trump’s use of sanctions, particularly in their extraterritorial form. Yet, other significant sanctions have also targeted the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad, the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority in the Occupied West Bank and NATO ally Turkey, to name but a few. With regards to extraterritorial sanctions, the recently approved US Caesar Act, which targets the Assad regime and any third country or entity engaged in “significant” transactions with Syrian authorities, will also have far reaching implications. Aimed at denying Assad and his backers in Moscow, Tehran and Beirut a more encompassing military and political victory by preventing reconstruction and dissuading third states from re-engaging Damascus, these sanctions will inevitably have dire repercussions on ordinary Syrians’. They will also impact Lebanon, a major trade artery with Damascus and a country already tittering on the brink of economic collapse. 

Ultimately, such measures aim to contain and eventually roll-back the influence of regional competitors to the US and its allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Sanctions seek to deny these actors the ability to consolidate influence, coerce them into more accommodating stances or undermine their domestic stability in a not too veiled effort to bring about regime change, whether this be in Tehran, Damascus, Beirut or Ramallah. 

In this sense, the pursuit of sanctions is reflective of a broader shift from military to economic means to advance US interests in the region (and to an extent internationally) – an altogether positive development given the disastrous legacies of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Libya. Yet, it would be a mistake to minimize the impact these measures have on target countries, particularly in their extraterritorial form, given that they effectively hit the entire population, not only its leadership or government. 

The End Justifies the Means?

Unilateral in form and thus devoid of international buy-in and legitimacy, US sanctions on Iran have been periodically expanded since May 2018 and by now target the almost complete entirety of Iran’s economy, government, institutions and society. In so doing, they have caused widespread hardship and suffering among the population, not least during the recent COVID-19 epidemic and previous national disasters such as floods and earthquakes, depriving Iran of life-saving medicine and equipment even though such trade is nominally exempt from these sanctions on humanitarian grounds. While they have hit the Iranian economy hard, such measures have not weakened the Iranian leadership or lead to a change in Tehran’s behavior. 

Instead, Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has hardened Tehran’s negotiating positions and propensity for risky counter-measures, further insulated Iran from external pressures and repeatedly brought the region to the brink of conflict. US sanctions have moreover pushed Tehran closer to Moscow and Beijing, weakened Transatlantic cooperation on the Middle East and frayed international dialogue on nuclear non-proliferation, policy issues that are arguably of much graver strategic importance to the US. 

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While Iran’s economy is no doubt suffering, this will not result in mass popular protests or a collapse of the Islamic Republic. Much the opposite. So-called Iranian hardliners, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), sanctioned as a terrorist entity by the Trump administration in April 2019, are those that benefit the most from Iran’s isolation, consolidating their control over important sections of the domestic economy as well as black market trade. Indeed, these same actors saw their power increase during the long sanctions regime imposed on Iran in the run-up to the 2015 JCPOA signature. As noted in a 2012 study by the US-based Baker Institute, “The longer sanctions persist, the more economic transactions will be controlled by the Iranian leadership through black-market channels.”

Much of the same holds for the the abovementioned US Caesar Act on Syria. Notwithstanding some positive reviews, sanctions are no substitute for a real policy strategy. While no one can minimize the crimes committed by Assad and his backers, including the cynical exploitation of humanitarian concerns to achieve political goals by Russia and China when they vetoed the renewal of a UN deal to provide cross-border aid to millions of Syrians’ located in territories beyond the reach of Damascus last July, tightening the sanctions screws on Damascus and its allies will not achieve its objectives. Setting aside the moral ambivalence of a policy which borders on collective punishment, such measures may even end up strengthening those same actors they are meant to target. 

Moreover, by spreading the economic pain outwards, beyond the target country itself, extraterritorial sanctions can complicate broader US policy goals – such as the stabilization of Iraq or Afghanistan or avoiding a complete collapse in Lebanon for example – due to their disruptive effects on regional trade. Instead of mollifying regional rivalries, also preserving potential back-channels that have proven effective in mitigating international standoffs, such measures effectively harden and further institutionalize the prevalence of zero-sum rivalries in the region, limiting the maneuverability of all actors, including the US, by locking these into a cyclical game of escalations that can either end in capitulation or conflict. 

Dialogue and Multilateralism

Sanctions can – and have – worked in the past but only when part of a broader strategy. The signing of the JCPOA with Iran in 2015 is a clear example of the correct mix of coercion, multilateralism and diplomatic compromise to reach a deal. Sanctions do not work as a form of bullying, when deployed in the absence of or as a substitute for a policy strategy and when they lack the buy-in of other international actors, as is today the case with the US’s unilateral sanctioning of Iran.

Overall, sanctions are especially harmful when they remain in place for too long, often causing widespread suffering while undermining their initial objective which is to re-gain influence with the target country and population not unilaterally deprive oneself of it.

A broader and realistic strategy that is linked to actionable US interests in the short, medium and long term is what has been lacking in the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East. Capitulation and all out victories – whether it be in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria or Iran – cannot represent viable strategic objectives for the US in the Middle East. 

After decades of working within old Cold War paradigms based on containment and exclusivist relationships with key regional allies, the time has come for the US look at the region through a different more encompassing lens. The objective should be that of fostering dialogue and confidence building among populations and citizens, not only regimes and governing elites, and approaching the region as it is today, not in some imaginary ideal future or long-overcome past. Elevating human security, as opposed to regime survival or authoritarian stability, as the guiding principle represents a starting point for such a paradigm shift, one that would not only prove conducive to stabilization but could also prove instrumental for the birth of a more balanced and cooperative US-EU relationship in the Middle East.  

Given that socio-economic hardship, declining living standards and fraying social contracts represent the most prominent short-to-medium risks to regional stability, it is hard to see how more sanctions and financial coercion can prove conducive to stabilization. Europe’s refusal to bow to Trump’s pressure and agree to impose ‘snapback’ sanctions on Iran is positive in this regard. By prioritizing dialogue and diplomacy via multilateral frameworks, Europe is standing firm in the face of US pressure and in pursuit of its interests and concerns, but more needs to be done. 

On Iran, as on Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, European states no longer have the luxury of not having a policy strategy or of simply following the US lead. Buying time until the November 2020 US elections is no solution either, not least since a major rational for the recent upgrading on US sanctions on Iran and Syria – like the recent UAE-Israel agreement – is precisely that of entrapping any future administration’s policy within similar parameters, constraining the next President’s political maneuverability to change course.  

To mitigate these developments, Europe needs to deploy proactive policies via courageous and inclusive diplomacy and strive to come out in front of Washington’s next moves in the Middle East, not sit on the sidelines and react after the damage is done. Such approach would not only help to mitigate the worst impulses of the Trump administration and preserve a degree of multilateral dialogue with Russia and China, whose buy-in will prove indispensable for any prospective stabilization of the region, but also better position Europe to re-engage Washington on the basis of clearly defined European interests in the region, forcing the US to react to these as opposed to the other way around. 

No quick-fix solutions exist for the MENA region’s many challenges and Europe alone is in no place to have a comprehensive impact. The region is likely to experience renewed upheavals in the not too distant future and given that any conflict or turmoil will impact European interests in a much graver fashion than the US, China and even Russia, such efforts would represent the bare minimum of what one should expect from Brussels and those EU institutions that promote Europe as a “global actor” on the world stage.  

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