In the language of force
Sanctions against Iran highlight the condescending behaviour of the US as it drives Iran to the edge
After months of rhetoric, the US President Donald Trump last Monday re-imposed sanctions on Iran, targeting the country's oil export besides affecting its shipping and financial transactions despite concerns expressed by countries that signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
The Trump administration's departure from the multi-nation nuclear deal brokered by the then US president Barak Obama is illogical in the first place as it is still maintained by Iran and five other signatories Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.
The deal lifted economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for an effective halt to its nuclear development activities to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
After the deal came into effect in 2016, Iran began exporting its oil more freely and signed billion-dollar agreements with Airbus, Boeing and other Western firms.
Trump called the deal, which the Obama administration considered one of its major foreign policy success, "the worst deal ever". He contends that the deal has done nothing to deter Iran from eventually possessing nuclear weapons and wants the restrictions imposed by the agreement to be permanent. He also wants Iran to abandon its ballistic missile development and to stop supporting militant groups, regarded by the US as terrorist organisations, in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The unilateral sanctions by the Trump administration also reinstate penalties for companies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere that do not halt Iranian oil import.
The punitive measures aim to significantly cut Iran's oil exports which have already fallen by around one million barrels a day since May and cut it off from international finances. The US has black-listed 50 Iranian banks and subsidiaries, more than 200 people and ships, Iran's national airline and more than 65 Iranian aircraft.
China has denounced the US action while remaining signatories to the nuclear deal believe the nuclear agreement is working as intended and is keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the proliferation monitor of the United Nations, has repeatedly said Iran is in compliance with the deal's terms.
European countries, which remain committed to the nuclear deal, have discussed measures that would shield their companies from the US sanctions and allow them to keep doing business in Iran. They feel that the US is using its enormous economic leverage to threaten European companies that wish to do business with Iran.
But so far the European countries have been unable to stop an exodus of major firms including Boeing and Airbus, which suspended the aircraft purchases by Iran. General Electric, Maersk, Peugeot, Renault, Siemens and Total have also cancelled business deals in Iran, according to Washington-based Atlantic Council.
The new sanctions have sparked furious reactions from Iran where its President Hassan Rouhani, terming the action as "economic war," said his country would "proudly bypass your illegal, unjust sanctions because it is against international regulations."
Emboldened by widespread criticism of the US decision, including from its close allies, Rouhani declared that Iran would not bend to "the language of force, pressure and threats" and vowed to break the sanctions.
Many Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt who along with the US see Iran as their common enemy, have supported the US action. They fear that Iran's growing power and influence in the region is threatening their national unity and security.
Israel, which had long opposed the Iran nuclear deal thanked Trump for the sanctions, saying "in a single move, the US is dealing a critical blow to Iran's entrenchment in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen."
While taking the measures, the Trump administration has exempted India and seven other countries—China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy, Greece and Turkey from the sanctions for 180 days.
These countries have shown a significant reduction in oil purchase from Iran and have been given a temporary waiver to continue this, US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo said. The waiver is only till March next year.
Iran is the world's sixth largest oil producer. India is the second biggest buyer of Iranian oil after China. According to reports, the US has been pushing India to restrict its monthly purchase from Iran to 1.25 million tonnes or 15 million tonnes in a year, down from 22.6 million tonnes purchased in the 2017-18 financial year.
India has close diplomatic ties with Iran and is building a strategic port called Chabahar in south-east Iran that is expected to be operational by 2019. The port will open a new transit route between India, Iran and Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.
The re-imposition of sanctions will not only impact on India's oil imports, thus possibly leading to increasing prices of petroleum products in the country, but will also have a bearing on the development of the port, considered by India as one of strategic location because it allows it access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
India, which is also closely working with the US to further its strategic interests, will have to deal with unfolding changes in the Middle East that include possible normalisation of relations in near future between Gulf countries and Israeli with greater diplomatic and political engagements.
The Trump is imposing the sanctions in a phased manner. Last August it had restored sanctions on Iran targeting financial transactions involving US dollars, Iran's automotive sector and the purchase of commercial aeroplanes and metals, including gold.
The renewed sanctions have already taken a heavy toll on Iran, with its currency losing half its value and prices of essential commodities such as fruit, poultry and milk skyrocketing. There had also been reports of sporadic demonstrations including strikes by teachers, workers and truck drivers in recent months.
The measures may also undermine President Rouhani, a relative moderate, and strengthen hard-liners opposed to the West.
The US action is nothing but a hardline approach by a superpower targeting Iran's largest source of revenue in the most punishing manner after getting out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May.
By re-imposing the sanctions, the Trump administration is perhaps calculating that the measures would force Iran back to the negotiating table for tougher terms and conditions but it may be sorely disappointed.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)