Many commentators have blamed the Trump administration for causing the rising tensions between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf. According to their analysis, it was the decision of President Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) and reinstate secondary economic sanctions that pushed Iran into a corner and caused Iranian leaders to retaliate by attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Yet, there is a much simpler explanation for the current tensions that needs to be considered: The Trump administration is holding Iran accountable to norms of international behavior, and Iran does not want to be held accountable.
Holding Iran accountable is something that has been unique to the United States. Indeed, for decades it has been the bipartisan policy of both Democratic and Republican presidents and the U.S. Congress. A case in point is the 1994 terror bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina that took the lives of 85 people.
According to the detailed indictment of Argentinian Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, “… the decision to carry out the AMIA attack was made, and the attack was orchestrated, by the highest officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the time, and that these officials instructed Lebanese Hezbollah – a group that has historically been subordinated to the economic and political interests of the Tehran regime – to carry out the attack.”
The 1994 AMIA attack was the first time in history that an act of terrorism was carried out on the instructions of a sovereign government. Yet, with the exception of the United States, the response of the international community to this horrific act of murder was total indifference: No U.N. sanctions on Iran, no economic boycotts.
At the time, the only country in the world to have economic sanctions on Iran was the United States. That’s because in 1979 the U.S. State Department created a special designation called, “State Sponsors of Terrorism”, and in 1994 Iran was already on that list.
Iran was first placed on the list of State Sponsors of Terror in 1984 after the 1983 bombings of the American Embassy and the Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Since then, Iran has remained on the list due to its ongoing support for Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other violent terror organizations.
The practical implication of the designation as a State Sponsor of Terror is something called, “primary sanctions”. These are U.S. laws and Executive Orders that prohibit most American companies from doing any business in Iran. The few exceptions are for humanitarian reasons (e.g. the sale of food and medicine).
For the rest of the world, business-as-usual has been the guiding principal of their relations to Iran in spite of its support for terrorism. Iranian leaders have interpreted these business relationships as a green light to commit murder and mayhem throughout the Middle East. One may call it a policy of “zero accountability”.
It was zero accountability on Iran that destroyed the hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Between 1993 and 2007, Iran provided funding and training for Palestinian terrorist organizations that led to 169 suicide bombings and the deaths of 1,000 Israeli civilians. With the exception of the United States, the international community turned a blind eye to Iran’s policies and placed zero accountability on Iran for supporting Palestinian terror.
The one exception to zero accountability was a period between 2010 and 2012 when the international community came together to confront Iran over its violations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Following Iran’s repeated violations of U.N. Security Council Resolutions that called on Iran to halt all uranium enrichment activity, the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration enacted new and powerful legislation that imposed what are called “secondary sanctions” on Iran.
Whereas primary sanctions are only relevant to U.S companies, secondary economic sanctions target non-U.S. companies. They work by forcing non-U.S. companies to make a choice: either do businesses in Iran or in the United States. Not both. Non-U.S. companies that violate secondary sanctions risk losing contracts with the U.S. government or access to the American banking system.
In addition to the U.S. sanctions, the European Union also placed tough sanctions on Iran during this period.
With hundreds of major multinational companies ending their business in Iran, the massive economic pressure created by these powerful sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table with the international community. The negotiations with the group called the P5+1, the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, brought about the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA in 2015.
Although the JCPOA did place significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, there are four major problems with the deal. First, the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will end, or “sunset”, by the year 2030. Secondly, it does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program. Finally, the JCPOA does not address Iran’s support for terrorism and the Syrian regime.
The hope for the JCPOA was that the lifting of secondary sanctions would allow Iran to be reintegrated into the international economy, and as a result, Iranian leaders would choose for their country to act like a normal nation.
In a Press Conference on July 15th, 2015 following the completion of the JCPOA, President Obama said, “… my hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave. But we’re not counting on it”.
Although the United States maintained its primary sanctions on Iran, the JCPOA required the Obama Administration to lift the secondary sanctions to allow for non-U.S. companies to return to Iran. The relief of the secondary sanctions gave Iranian leaders every opportunity to forge a new path for their country.
Instead, Iranian leaders took full advantage of the JCPOA and its zero accountability to advance their dangerous designs for “exporting the Islamic revolution” throughout the region. Tragically, this came at a great cost to the people of the Middle East.
Zero accountability allowed for Iran to provide massive economic and military support to the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad that cost the lives of more than 500,000 Syrians and created more than five million refugees. Iran is therefore guilty of aiding and abetting the Syrian regime in committing war crimes including the bombing of hospitals and the torture and murder of some 100,000 civilians in Syrian prisons.
Zero accountability allowed for Iran to continue to support Hezbollah with annual financial support of some $800 million and continued efforts to upgrade the accuracy of its massive arsenal of 130,000 rockets and missiles that target Israel. All this happened while Hezbollah embarked on a project to dig six terror tunnels under Lebanon’s border with Israel, a dangerous development that was only discovered last December.
Following the implementation of the JCPOA, the non-partisan advocacy group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), warned that Iran should not be open for business due to Iran’s support for terrorism and gross human rights violations. UANI conducted a campaign that sent hundreds of letters to major multinational companies warning of the multiple risks of doing business in Iran.
When the Trump administration understood that zero accountability on Iran’s dangerous activities outside of the nuclear deal was making the Middle East a much more dangerous place, President Trump decided that it was not in the national security interest of the United States to remain part of the JCPOA.
By leaving the JCPOA, the United States re-imposed secondary sanctions on non-U.S. companies who choose to do business in Iran in what the Trump administration calls the “maximum pressure campaign”. The effects have been profound. Hundreds of major multinational companies have ended their business in Iran or simply never returned.
Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote, “Iran’s oil exports are down sharply, and its economic isolation is real and growing. The economy contracted some 4% in 2018 and is projected to shrink as much as another 6% this year. The currency is plummeting. There are reports of price spikes, shortages of food and medicine, and reduced financial transfers to Hezbollah and various militias central to Iran’s attempts to exert influence around the region”.
Critics of the Trump administration’s Iran policy unfairly claim that it is unclear whether the U.S. wants regime change or a change in the behavior of the regime. Actually, the policy has been very clear. It was detailed in the speech of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 22nd, 2018 in which he outlined the demands for accountability on Iran.
Among other things the list included demands for Iran to end its support for terrorism, a withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria, and permanent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. In return, Secretary Pompeo said, “…we’re prepared to end the principal components of every one of our sanctions against the regime. We’re happy at that point to reestablish full diplomatic and commercial relationships with Iran”.
In other words, the United States is demanding that Iran act like a normal nation so that it can be treated like a normal nation. After all, normal nations don’t sponsor terrorism, normal nations don’t aid brutal regimes like Syria in committing war crimes, and a state sponsor of terror should never have the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
By now it should be obvious that zero accountability on Iran hasn’t worked. If we truly want to promote the hopes for peace in the Middle East, the international community should join the United States in applying maximum pressure in order to hold Iran accountable.