Escalating US-Iran Tensions: Sanctions Often Don’t Work in Changing a State’s Behavior

May 24, 2019 by HJ Mai
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations on September 18, 2017, in New York. Iran will stop implementing some key provisions of its nuclear deal with major powers, President Hassan Rowhani announced on Wednesday. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/TNS)

The bilateral relationship between the United States and Iran has been strained for decades, but the recent tensions have led to growing concerns over a potential military conflict.

The Trump administration this month deployed an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence information that Iran is possibly preparing an attack on U.S. forces or interests.

The escalating situation has been further fueled by a still unexplained attack on four ships in the Persian Gulf, along with a drone attack on a pipeline in Saudi Arabia for which Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility.

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. reversed course and abandoned its diplomatic relationship with Iran. The final rift came when the president decided to withdraw the U.S. from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

On Friday President Donald Trump said the U.S. will bolster its military presence in the Middle East with an additional 1,500 troops.

Speaking with reporters on the White House lawn as he headed out on a trip to Japan, the president said troops will have a “mostly protective” role.

The administration had notified Congress earlier Friday about the troop plans.

In addition to such shows of strength, Washington has applied a maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, imposing wide-ranging economic sanctions and pushing back against Iran’s influence in the Middle East.

“I can assure the rest of the world that President Trump will continue to ratchet up the pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran so that their behavior will change,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in April.

However, trying to change a country’s behavior through sanctions might not lead to the desired outcome.

“Historically, I don’t think sanctions necessarily have a very good result in terms of compelling a state to change its behavior, specifically when that behavior is view by the targeted state as fundamental to its survival,” Garret Martin, professorial lecturer at the American University’s School of International Service, told The Well News.

He pointed to North Korea as an example of a country that has been under significant sanctions for years, but there are no signs that the country is serious about getting rid of dismantling its nuclear weapons.

“If you’re thinking about just in terms of causing pain to the Iranian society and economy, of course, sanctions work. Ordinary Iranians are certainly feeling the pinch. That said, Iran has been subjected to sanctions for decades, so their economy has to a certain degree adapted to that,” Martin said.

Henry Nau, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, says it is too early to judge the Trump administration’s policy with regards to Iran.

“It’s been in place for a year, and really, some of the more stringent measures just went into effect recently,” he told The Well News. “I see a lot of value in what the Trump administration is trying to do, whether they’re going to have time to do it or not, is another question. But it’s pretty clear that Iranians have to be shown that they cannot continue to disrupt the region, and expect to have good relationships with the United States.”

Nau, who was a member of former President Ronald’s National Security Council from January 1981 to August 1983, believes that the last thing President Trump wants is sending U.S. troops into Iran.

“What he will do is he may bomb the hell out of some installation,” he said. “There could be that kind of short term, very heavy reprisal action, particularly if the Iranians attack some of our shipping in the region.”

Nau said that the Trump administration’s current Iran policy is closely related to the key issue in the Middle East, which is the Israeli-Arab dispute.

“Until they do change their behavior, there’s no chance to stabilize the region, and therefore there’s no chance to move ahead with any kind of negotiations involving the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said.

While the ultimate result of the administration’s strategy remains to be seen, Martin questions whether Iran is willing to negotiate with a government that has unilaterally withdrawn from a number of international agreements.

“The problem now is that after the experience of the JCPOA and the United States backing out so quickly, any future attempts of negotiations are going to be that much more difficult because ordinary Iranians would have reason to doubt the sincerity of American negotiators,” Martin said.

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