Trump Sanctions Iran’s Supreme Leader, but to What End?
With the flourish of his pen on Monday, President Trump imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as everyone in Khameini’s office or appointed by him. It was a point of high drama in the escalating brinksmanship between the United States and the Islamic Republic. It was the closest that Trump has come to formally calling for a regime change. “The Supreme Leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime,” the President told reporters. “These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions.” Usually, the United States will sanction a head of state—such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—as a signal that the leader is no longer deemed legitimate. In other words, Washington believes that a leader has to go.
Trump was opaque, even puzzling, about his intentions, however. “America is a peace-loving nation,” he said. “We do not seek conflict with Iran or any other country. I look forward to the day when sanctions can be finally lifted and Iran can become a peaceful, prosperous, and productive nation. That can go very quickly; it can be tomorrow. It can also be in years from now. So, I look forward to discussing whatever I have to discuss with anybody that wants to speak. In the meantime, who knows what’s going to happen.”
The new executive order also targeted the Revolutionary Guard commanders involved in shooting down a sophisticated U.S. drone last week. The Trump Administration intends later this week to impose sanctions on the U.S.-educated Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was the chief interlocutor during the two years of negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. Zarif once quipped that he and the former Secretary of State John Kerry spent more time with each other during that period than they spent with their wives. As Iran’s top diplomat, Zarif regularly travels to New York to attend U.N. sessions. He was here in April and had been expected to return next month.
At a White House press conference, the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, vowed that the new sanctions will “lock up literally billions of dollars more of assets.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Saudi Arabia on Monday, charged that Khamenei‘s office “has enriched itself at the expense of the Iranian people. It sits atop a vast network of tyranny and corruption.” The new sanctions, Pompeo said, will deprive the Iranian leadership of the resources it uses to “spread terror and oppress the Iranian people.”
Ironically, the punitive new measure may not have major economic impact—at least not to the degree that the Administration advertised. “It’s a lot of hype, but it doesn’t mean much economically. It’s unlikely to have a damaging effect” on Iran beyond the sanctions that have already been imposed, Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury sanctions specialist who is now at the Center for a New American Security, told me. “It’s in the realm of the symbolic.” The sanctions are “a sideshow to a threat of military escalation and all-out conflict,” she said. They fuel a narrative focussed on Iran rather than the United States—and the fact that Trump blinked when he called off a retaliatory military strike last Thursday.
Former Treasury officials also claim that Trump did not need to sign a new executive order—beyond the hype and media attention it produced. The authority to sanction either entities or officials affiliated with the Iranian government has existed since 2012, when the Obama Administration issued an executive order, Kate Bauer, a former Treasury official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “It’s clear that this Administration wants to send a message,” Bauer said. “This is a response to the recent escalation and the shooting down of the drone.”
The main impact of the new sanctions may be political—diminishing rather than encouraging diplomacy or deëscalation. Pompeo said that Tehran “knows how to reach us,” if it decides to “meet our diplomacy with diplomacy.” But Tehran immediately rejected talks. At the United Nations, the Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi told reporters that Tehran would not succumb to pressure. “Nobody in a clear mind can accept to have a dialogue with somebody that is threatening you with more sanctions. So, as long as this threat is there, there is no way that Iran and the U.S. can start a dialogue,” he told reporters, before a closed-door session on tensions in the energy-rich Gulf. In a tweet, Zarif said that Trump’s advisers and allies “despise diplomacy and thirst for war.” Other Iranian officials condemned the new sanctions as “economic terrorism.”
Trump’s decision, a year ago, to unilaterally reimpose other sanctions—splitting with the five major powers who also brokered the nuclear deal—has battered Iran’s economy. In April, Washington vowed to sanction five nations that remain major importers of Iranian oil if they didn’t cease all purchases; the move cut off Tehran’s main source of revenue. Iran’s oil sales today are about a sixth of what they were in 2016. Inflation has exceeded fifty per cent in some months, with the price of basic necessities skyrocketing. The I.M.F. projects a six-per-cent economic contraction for Iran in 2019. Yet the Iranian economy is still far from crippled. The Islamic Republic has not witnessed the kind of economic protests that erupted nationwide in late 2017 and early 2018, Western diplomats in Tehran have told me.
Sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader and his entourage could even backfire, some experts suggest. The Trump Administration’s goal is to get Tehran to make concessions on its missile development, regional interventions, and human-rights record, as well as its nuclear program. But “these sanctions will make discussions toward a new treaty very, very difficult,” Adnan Mazarei, a former deputy director of the I.M.F.’s Middle East program who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me. “They send a bad political signal. The recent events—especially shooting down a U.S. drone—make Iran feel more comfortable and self-confident from a domestic perspective. It could say, ‘We won the last round and maybe we can talk now.’ ” No longer, Mazarei said. Tehran has boasted that it shot down the Global Hawk drone, one of the most sophisticated surveillance aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, with a homemade rocket. On Monday, the chief of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, warned that his forces could shoot down more U.S. aircraft flying in the Gulf, “and the enemy knows it.”
Over all, sanctions are an imperfect tool, former Treasury specialists told me. They can work—but they may take years, even decades. North Korea has been sanctioned to the hilt, but Trump’s negotiations with Kim Jong Un have yet to reduce his nuclear program, which is far more sophisticated than Iran’s. Iran is still more than a year from the ability to produce a bomb, whereas Pyongyang is estimated to have between twenty and sixty bombs. Sanctions to get Rhodesia’s white minority government to the negotiating table to end the country’s civil war took almost fifteen years. Sanctions are also most effective when the world unites behind punitive economic measures, as the U.N. did in invoking sanctions on Iran four times between 2006 and 2010. Today, the deepest split in U.S. relations with its transatlantic allies is over Iran policy.
As prospects of diplomacy dimmed on Monday, Trump signaled his willingness to deploy military force. “I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “A lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future.”