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Caught in the Middle: Iran and US Sanctions

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Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: Iran Geostrategic Affairs GCC Foreign Policy
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Patience in Washington with Iran is fast running out. The Obama administration seems to continue a twin-track approach to imposing greater sanctions on Iran: first through extensive diplomatic efforts to secure a much more punishing round of restrictions on trade through the UN Security Council and, secondly, through its own unilateral efforts. The US think tank Stratfor has suggested that the UN route remains uncertain given the extent of the concessions that China and Russia may demand as the price for their support. Chinas threat to impose sanctions on US companies that are supplying military material to Taiwan does not help.
Accordingly, the Obama administration apparently inclines toward exerting pressure through unilateral sanctions and a geopolitical initiative.  The sanctions move focuses on limiting the supply of gasoline to Iranbecause of Irans lack of internal refining capacity. Stratfor goes on to suggest that the IRGC is heavily involved in Irans gasoline trade and alleges that this is being conducted through the Emirati port of Jebel Ali and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Over the past 2 years, it is certainly the case that increasing numbers of international companies have suspended gasoline sales to Iran, fearing US opprobrium and an impact on their profits if they continued. Moreover, US pressure seems to be telling with Germanys Siemens suspending its contracts with Iran and the US chemical company, Huntsman, following suit. If Stratfors assessment is correct, this must also suggest that US pressure is likely to mount on the UAE government to curtail the use of Jebel Ali by companies shipping gasoline to Iran. The US is likely to pressure all the GCC states with a Gulf coast.
This comes at a time when many doubt the effectiveness of such sanctions or even the willingness of the GCC to participate in them.  This is due to several factors such as:
1) Iran has managed in the past to ration the gasoline quota in preparation for such sanctions. Although without doubt this was met with an overwhelming indignation from its people, it demonstrated the Iranian government ability to impose adaptation to such sanctions.
2) That such sanctions directly affect the Iranian nationals rather than the government suggests US aims, as in last summers presidential elections, is to create a state of public indignation and contribute towards turbulence in the governance system and perhaps its downfall.  It should surprise no one that GCC states fear the migration of the Iranian instability to their territories , especially if the toppling of the regime led to the intrusion of a more radical military power that would take control of the decision making process and neutralize current political powers. 
3) The suggested US sanctions have no effect on the regimes fundamental ability to support its military program, especially its nuclear program, since the regime depends primarily on its oil export industry to support government expenses. Moreover, it is in the interest of any sanctions to reduce the regimes income to weaken its ability to support military plans.
4) The Gulf States are also facing a moral dilemma in support of U.S. sanctions on Iran, especially since the sanctions do not come under the umbrella of the United Nations, and also ignore the UN resolutions which are of interest to other Arab and Islamic nations, especially toward Israel. Moreover, the significance of international legitimacy lies in the fact that it is the last fig leaf that prevents individual policies, a trend that could be dangerous if each country had the same capacity to defy and ignore the international system and the search for unilateral solutions. This deterrence seems to be one of the key drivers behind Chinas and Russias opposition towards the adoption of US sanctions at the United Nations because it is forcing them to acknowledge a new international reality in which they are not the only decision making authority.
5) Despite the GCC confidence in the USs commitment to provide protection, wisdom says that prevention is better than the cure and therefore the region will not be rushing into complying with the sanctions that may lead them to confrontations with Iran on behalf of the United States. This wouldnt have been as sensitive an issue if the sanctions were under the UNs patronage, especially if those sanctions were designed to make Iran comply with UN standards which the US itself belittles.
The best way ahead for the region is to engage in constructive dialogue with the international community regarding the best means to persuade Iran to provide adequate assurances that its nuclear program will not be a military one and that it will provide the international legislative authorities all the guarantees needed. At the same time, the regions leaders could defuse the pride that probably fuels the confrontation between the US and Iran which has become one of the reasons for continuity of the regimes that thrives on stirring nationalism in society by picturing the US threat as a diminution of Iranian capabilities.
Apart from the nuclear program, which had dominated the worlds speech tone with Iran, it had continued to raise its conventional military capacity to make it a considerable regional force, especially since nuclear weapons are usually of greater psychological effect rather than military utility.
Perhaps Iran would benefit from its traditional ability to dominate the region until its nuclear capabilities gradually mature, especially since they reached a degree of political acumen that made it unable to impose its agenda on the world.
AT and MB 

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