From Sanctions to War: An Analysis of America’s Relationship With Iran

By: Sarah Hansen, Associate Editor

On Saturday, September 15, 2019, drone strikes hit oil installations in Saudi Arabia. While Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks, the United States and Saudi Arabia maintain that Iran was responsible. The Trump administration claims intelligence assessments and satellite photos show evidence of Iranian involvement. Iran has denied any involvement and American officials have offered no evidence beyond satellite photos, which analysts said were insufficient to prove the source of the attack and responsible parties. Despite a lack of sufficient evidence, the U.S. continues to blame Iran for the attack. President Trump announced on Twitter he would “substantially increase sanctions” on Iran after the attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

The United States has a long history of placing sanctions on Iran. In 2011, Congress sought to restrict oil exports in Iran through sanctions. These sanctions were codified in section 1245 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. These sanctions cut Iran’s exports of oil in half between 2012 and 2015. During this period, the currency of Iran was severely depressed. Iran faced inflation and shortages of goods, including vital medicines, and Iranians were forced to carry large stacks of bank notes to pay for everyday items.

These sanctions were ended in 2015 when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed. It is a detailed agreement reached by Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The United Nations Security Council endorsed the agreement with Resolution 2231. Under the agreement, Iran was to dismantle much of its nuclear program and give international inspectors extensive access to its facilities in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

President Trump announced in May, 2018, that the United States would withdraw from the JCPOA and reinstate nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime. While sanctions are a foreign policy tool entrusted to Congress, authority delegated to the president under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) allows him to impose sanctions after the declaration of a national emergency. The only requirement is that the emergency be an ‘unusual and extraordinary’ threat that has emanated outside of U.S. territory. What constitutes ‘unusual and extraordinary’ is not defined in the statute. Once the president declares a threat, he can investigate, regulate, or prohibit a range of transactions and economic activities.

In August, 2018, the Trump administration reinstated unilateral sanctions against Iran. The initial response from President Hassan Rouhani of Iran was that Iranians intended to abide by the terms of the deal, and he criticized Mr. Trump for his history of not honoring international treaties. In a joint statement, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain noted that the United Nations Security Council Resolution endorsing the JCPOA remained “the binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute.”

While other parties of the JCPOA have attempted to keep the agreement alive, U.S. sanctions put in place under President Trump have caused Iran’s oil exports to collapse, the value of its currency to plummet, and sent inflation soaring. Iran’s inflation rate is greater than 40 percent. The country’s economy is projected to shrink by 3 to 6 percent this year – threatening to curtail the regime’s main source of revenue. Oil exports have been reduced from 2.5 million barrels a day, before Trump left the JCPOA, to less than 200,000 barrels a day.

In July, 2019, President Trump tightened sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Iran suspended two commitments in the JCPOA in response. That same month inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran began enriching uranium above the 3.6% limit set by the nuclear deal and had exceeded a 660lb limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium.

As for any future resolve, Iranian President Rouhani has declared he will not consider meeting Trump at the United Nations General Assembly next week without a lift on sanctions. Rouhani also maintains that  if Iran was behind the Saudi attack, it would amount to a brazen escalation of hostilities by Tehran against a U.S. ally. Seyed Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said in a news conference that if the United States “stops economic terrorism and returns to the nuclear deal, then they may sit at a corner and be present within the framework of the nuclear deal member states.”

Just yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of having carried out an ‘act of war’ with aerial strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Secretary Pompeo said the United States is working to build a coalition to deter further attacks, and plans to “double down,”  imposing more sanctions against Iran in response to the attack. In a statement, Pompeo said “we have set about a course of action to deny Iran the capacity and the wealth to prevent them from conducting their terror campaigns,” adding that “you can see from the events of the last week there’s more work to do.”

The aftermath of the attacks on Saudi oil facilities continues to unravel. If, when, and how the United States will sanction Iran remains unclear.  With Iran’s economy already crippled by the U.S.’s exit  from the JCPOA, there is little more the U.S. can do in the way of economic sanctions. The next step could be force. Over the next few days, it is possible that the U.S. could find itself entangled in another military engagement in the Middle East.


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