US maneuvers tactfully around Iran sanctions

Global Times | 作者: Li Zixin | 时间: 2018-11-12 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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Washington reimposed sanctions on Iran on November 5. The sanctions cover various critical sectors including energy, banking, shipping and aviation, affecting 50 Iranian banks and their subsidiaries, Iran Air with more than 65 of its aircraft, and more than 200 individuals and vessels in Iran's shipping sector. The new sanctions imply that Iran will be banned from exporting oil to the international community.

What garnered more attention is that the US has temporarily granted waivers to eight countries including China, India, South Korea and Japan, allowing them to continue importing oil from Iran, however, stipulating that the import volume be reduced continuously in the coming months. The ultimate goal of the US is to cut Iran's oil exports to zero. It is hoped that Iran will change its approach under pressure and finally come to a new agreement with the US.

The Trump administration believes that the original nuclear pact agreed between world powers and Iran has not effectively restricted Tehran's nuclear weapon development, let alone its ballistic missile technology research and development, and no necessary discussion has been held on failure of the agreement. Worse still to Washington, with the lifting of sanctions as part of the 2015 nuclear agreement, Iran has greatly increased its strength, as well as its support for regional allies, especially financial and military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, which has expanded Tehran's influence in the region and shaken the geopolitical balance. This severely threatens the security and interests of the US and its allies in this region.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the US has adopted a high pressure policy toward Iran and gradually formed an alliance with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In the context of "America First" doctrine, the Trump administration needs to decrease military presence in the Middle East and rely on "offshore balancing" instead to maintain its influence in the region at a lower cost. Hence, the White House believes it is unnecessary to abide by the "defective" Iran nuclear deal.

But the US policy toward Iran is also constrained by geopolitical changes and pressure from the international community. As one of the largest exporters in the global energy market, Saudi Arabia is the major supporter of Trump's tough policy toward Iran. As the US restricts Iran oil exports, the energy gap needs to be quickly filled by other oil exporters so as to maintain stability in the global energy market, which requires cooperation by Riyadh. But now Saudi Arabia has been mired in the Jamal Khashoggi murdered case and the US, despite being an ally, has had to increase pressure on Saudi Arabia amid widespread international criticism of the latter. The straining US-Saudi Arabia relations have confined the degree of US sanctions on Iran. 

In addition, the European Union, Turkey, India, Japan, South Korea and other allies also play a vital role in the implementation of US global strategic deployment. The US needs support from allies to counter Russia or to strengthen the so-called "Indo-Pacific strategy". "America First" does not equal "America going alone". The alliance system is still important, but the Trump administration expects to find a more cost-effective approach to promote alliance cooperation. Therefore, the US must take into account the feelings of its allies. To enforce its regional strategy, providing appropriate buffer period is of critical significance.

After the US announced the new sanctions, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has vowed to sell oil and break the sanctions. Iran once threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz in case of reimposition of US sanctions. In fact, the previous Iran nuclear deal did not boost economic growth in the country as expected. This year social contradiction in Iran has further intensified, posing a greater challenge for the authorities to maintain stability. In addition, if Iran takes extreme steps and disrupts energy prices in the international market, it will face pressure from not only the US, but also the international community. Therefore, considering domestic, economic and social stability and the international situation, Iran will probably maintain overall restraint while confronting the US. 


Li Zixin is an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. 



Source: Global Times, November 11, 2018.