The Trump Administration’s April 22 announcement on ending waivers granted to buyers of Iranian crude holds prospects for delivering a significant blow to Iran’s coffers. It also serves as the latest installment of Mr. Trump’s tough approach towards countering decades of Iranian belligerence in the broader Middle East.
This escalation in Mr. Trump’s hardened policy towards Tehran aims to cut Iranian crude exports completely, threatening the regime’s main source of revenue during its current deep recession.
These sanctions put additional pressure on Tehran after Washington’s pull out of the international nuclear deal with Iran last year.
Washington’s threat of sanctions against buyers of Iranian oil will remove roughly 2 million barrels of oil off the market per day, raising the price of crude and forcing some of Tehran’s largest clients to shop elsewhere for their energy needs. Among those clients will be Beijing. According to some estimates, U.S. sanctions against Iranian oil will hasten inflation in China and contribute to a sharper slowdown of its economy, serving as untimely complications for Chinese policymakers during their ongoing trade tensions with Washington.
A nagging factor in these developments is the cost of crude. Oil prices are already at a six-month high with U.S. crude having risen 45% and brent crude prices up by 38% in 2019 thus far.
To address this, the Trump administration is in talks with Sunni Gulf allies about making up the shortfall in daily oil output. The White House has said that it is working with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to certify that global crude demand is met “as all Iranian oil is removed from the market”, and Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih has pledged that Riyadh will work with oil producers “to ensure adequate supplies are available to consumers…”
These complications aside, President Trump’s Iran oil sanctions are necessary, and gone are the days of Washington’s conciliatory ways towards Tehran. Trump’s latest sanctions are part and parcel of his administration’s hardline Iran policy which serves as a marked departure from years of U.S. failure to respond to Iranian hostility against American interests.
In justifying President Trump’s policy against Tehran, it bears reviewing the long litany of Iranian aggression against its neighbors and the U.S. The regime’s crimes go back decades, starting with the separate U.S. Embassy and Beirut barracks bombings of 1983, followed by the 1996 Kobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s support of Shi’ite militias that murdered hundreds of U.S. military personnel with advanced IEDs in both Iraq and Afghanistan is also well documented.
Beyond this, for over 30 years Iran has contributed to increased sectarianism in the Middle East while supporting terrorism through Hezbollah and Hamas. It has also exported its revolution through the radicalization of Shi’ite groups in the region and aggressively supported a state policy to destroy Israel.
Today, the reality is that Iran’s fingerprints can be found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan and even in the Shi’ite-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Since taking office, President Trump’s outreach to Sunni Gulf states, Egypt and Israel – – each of which felt abandoned under Obama – – has galvanized effective push back against Tehran’s nefarious activities.
Still, in conjunction with oil sanctions, the Trump administration can build on this promising Iran policy framework by focusing on a few additional key areas:
•Middle East states under assault by Iran’s proxies need continued American backing. Yemen is perhaps the most widely covered example with the sitting Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia fighting against the Iran-funded Shi’ite Houthi rebels in their attempt to overthrow the government in Sana’a.
•Necessary investments must be made to ensure a net advantage of military and cyber capabilities over Tehran.
•Measures must be taken to work with local U.S. partners to counter Tehran’s ambitions of securing the Shi’ite Crescent, a land bridge extending from Iran straight through to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. This path would give Iran continuity with its Arab proxies in Syria and Lebanon. This challenge demands both a continued military backing of friendly groups and a political strategy as to who governs where now that IS has fallen.
•Problems abound with the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), and Trump was right to withdraw from it in 2018. Washington and its allies must work with a sense of urgency to put an end to Tehran’s nuclear program by addressing the many inadequacies of the JCPOA. One approach would be to offer Tehran partial sanctions relief in exchange for a new nuclear deal that included severe restrictions on its missile program; commitments by Iran to sever financial and arms ties to specified proxy groups (Hezbollah, Houthis, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria); and an elimination of the deal’s sunset clauses regarding when various restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program (the ability to enrich uranium, etc.) expire.
Some say that Trump’s new strategy is akin to poking the Iranian bear and that Tehran can retaliate at the U.S. and its allies by completely getting out of the nuclear deal, facilitating more attacks against American troops in Iraq, exiting from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and conducting cyber attacks.
Yet, these threats existed before Mr. Trump put in place his Iran policy and they show the necessity of his firm approach towards Tehran. The dangers posed by Iran highlight the importance of the Trump administration’s elevating security and political ties with Sunni Gulf Arab states and Israel, the bolstering of U.S. naval assets in the Middle East, supporting Riyadh in its war against Iranian-backed Shia Houthi forces in Yemen and keeping U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, albeit at reduced levels.
As with all geopolitical challenges, coming events will dictate other necessary measures. Yet, these steps along with current Iranian oil sanctions can forge a strong, impactful Iran policy, further raise the costs of Iranian aggression and deter future misbehavior.
Ted Gover, Ph.D., writes on foreign policy and he is the Director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.