U.S. sanctions against allies over Iran deal like blowing up a bridge while still standing on it

As Iran, the E.U., and Russia work to save the deal, the Trump administration tries to figure out which of its partners to sanction first.

Belgium's Vice-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders  attends a meeting with Iran Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels on May 15, 2018.  CREDIT: Eric Lalmand/BELGA/ AFP/Getty Images.
Belgium's Vice-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders attends a meeting with Iran Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels on May 15, 2018. CREDIT: Eric Lalmand/BELGA/ AFP/Getty Images.

In a flurry of meetings, Iranian and European officials met on Tuesday in talks aimed at saving the 2015 nuclear deal after President Donald Trump announced last week that he would be pulling the United States out.

According to the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has complied with the terms of the agreement, which means President Trump, has, in fact, violated the deal. Still, the United States expects Iran to continue to submit to IAEA inspections that the Trump administration has entirely disregarded.

All the other signatories to the deal — Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany — still support the deal. The European partners especially lobbied to convince President Trump to stay in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but to no avail.

Richard Nephew, former Director for Iran on the National Security Staff, told ThinkProgress that there is “much they can do” to save the deal and work around U.S. banking sanctions, though “it is unclear whether they will do it.”

“The key issue is exposure to the United States,” said Nephew, answering questions via e-mail.

“If those foreign banks have no exposure to the United States, then it is hard for U.S. sanctions to touch them. A bigger, different issue relates to goods, which are also potentially sanctionable, but this then relates to the will and ability of governments to adopt counter sanctions strategies and even retaliatory sanctions to target U.S. interests in the event of U.S. sanctions use,” added Nephew, who is currently a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.


The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday designated the Governor of the Central Bank of Iran a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” accusing him and the bank of backing Hezbollah, a political party with an armed faction that the United States sees as a terrorist organization.

The United States is also talking about reimposing sanctions — again, in violation of the deal — on Iran, and is threatening to go further.

National Security Adviser John Bolton — who has been an advocate for an actual war against Iran for time immemorial — even told CNN on Sunday that the United States is willing to impose sanctions on European companies that continue to trade with Iran.

While this tactic has already yielded some results — Siemens for instance, said it would not commit to any new deals with Iran in order to avoid U.S. sanctions — it’s hard to see how this will work in the long run, especially with British, French, and German companies.


Plus, there are partners such as China and Russia, who aren’t too bothered by U.S. sanctions (Russia is in the process of passing a law that would make complying with U.S. sanctions illegal).

On Monday, one day prior to his meeting with European officials in Brussels, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in Moscow, meeting with Russian officials to discuss the JCPOA. French President Emmanuel Macron followed up with a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, with both men reaffirming their commitment to the deal.

While, as Nephew points out, a partner like Russia is unlikely to buy enough Iranian oil and provide Iran with the goods it needs, it is definitely a “potential factor. They can engage in lots of evasion,” he added.

Trying to achieve a goal by sanctioning one’s trade and diplomatic partners can be like blowing up a bridge while still standing on it.


“Well, it is certainly not the preferred outcome!” said Nephew. When asked if this is a viable course for the United States, Nephew said it certainly was — rational, even — “if you think that this is the only way to solve this problem.”

“But, long-term … this diminishes the attractiveness of your economy if it will just be used for leverage and the utility of sanctions as a tool, if partners will see you as refusing to back down even in the face of an agreement,” he added.

So far, the Trump administration has been pretty heavy-handed with sanctions with little to show for it: While his administration had sanctioned over 700 entities and individuals by the end of this first year, with still more to come, it does seem that Trump’s favorite tool might become even less effective as he stretches into the second year of his presidency and has to confront a growing number of foreign policy crises.

“This can lead to work-arounds for U.S. sanctions if not outright counter sanctions efforts,” said Nephew.