Iranian Foreign Minister: U.S. Sanctions ‘Hurt’ but ‘Will Not Change Policy’

Iranian Foreign Minister
AP/Hussein Malla

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif admitted in a CBS News interview on Sunday that U.S. sanctions have “hurt” Iran – by which he meant they are making the Iranian people suffer – but insisted sanctions can never induce the Iranian regime to change its behavior.

“Sanctions will have an economic impact, but they will not change policy. The United States must learn that,” Zarif lectured.

“The U.S. has an addiction to sanctions and they believe that the sanctions are the panacea that resolve all the problems. They don’t. They, in fact, hurt people and we have an obligation as a government to minimize the impact on the people. But sanctions never change policy,” he continued.

Divorced of context, Zarif has a point about the American political class, which could fairly be accused of overvaluing sanctions as a low-cost, zero-bloodshed instrument of foreign policy. For a very long time, American politicians have used sanctions as an easy way to demonstrate they are “doing something” about a foreign policy crisis, favoring measures that can be swiftly imposed with media fanfare while requiring little commitment of U.S. resources – and, vitally, no American troops putting their boots on dangerous ground.

The success rate for sanctions is mixed, but as CBS News pointed out to its credit, Iran arguably offers one of the best examples of sanctions working – at least, until President Barack Obama removed them:

In fact, many analysts believe harsh sanctions against Iran back in 2013 did in fact help draw Iran to the negotiating table. The result was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in 2015 by Iran, the U.S. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union – aka, the Iran nuclear deal.

President Trump deciding to pull out of that multilateral agreement was a personal blow to Zarif, who, at least for now, said Iran will continue working with Europe, China and Russia to try and keep the deal together. European nations are already working on a mechanism designed specifically to let them continue trade with Iran, including oil purchases.

The hotly debated question of the day is whether Obama’s nuclear deal should be seen as the successful product of sanctions, or the badly mistaken easing of sanctions in exchange for inadequate commitments from Tehran. American Democrats prefer the former view and Republicans the latter, while Iran would reject both formulations out of hand.

In the abstract, Zarif presents a challenging view of sanctions as a contest of wills between humanitarian democracies and tyrannical regimes where the tyrants have a tremendous inherent advantage because they are not only willing but eager to make their people suffer. The amount of pain borne by the populace of a tyranny like Iran or North Korea will escalate to a massive humanitarian crisis before the ruling elite feels any real pain. Compassionate and opportunistic parties in the free world are likely to demand relief from their own governments long before authoritarian regimes topple or change their behavior.

Here again, however, Zarif is underplaying the actual state of affairs in Iran, where a sizable portion of the populace is losing patience with regime attempts to excuse its wasteful spending on terrorism, foreign military adventures, and luxuries for the elite by blaming Iran’s economic woes on American sanctions.

Iran’s bluff on oil prices has been called as the global market expresses confidence the loss of Iranian supplies from tougher U.S. sanctions in November will not lead to dramatically higher prices, creating a nightmare scenario for Tehran. Some analysts remain concerned that increased output from other suppliers will be insufficient to head off a price spike, especially if suppliers like Russia decide not to dramatically increase production for political reasons.

Zarif was fooling no one, probably not even himself, when he told CBS News the impact of the November sanctions has already been priced into the Iranian political environment. CBS was once again appropriately skeptical of his defiant rhetoric:

“Everybody believes that the impact of those sanctions have already affected the economy,” Zarif told CBS News.

That is what Zarif and the Iranian regime will be hoping, anyway, because in reality they still don’t know how much revenue they stand to lose if the Trump administration really plays hardball and convinces the Chinese and Indians not to buy Iranian oil. If that happens, we asked Zarif if his government might find it has a considerable problem on its hands in the form of ramped-up protests.

“I think the Americans will have a bigger problem than that,” he said. “Because then we will take our own measures in response.”

He wouldn’t elaborate as to what measures Iran might take in retaliation if its oil revenue did dry up, echoing President Trump’s own fondness for the element of surprise: “As President Trump said, I want to keep him guessing.”

Zarif expressed some satisfaction at the rift in U.S.-European relations ostensibly caused by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal:

“It is the first time that the Europeans are not only making statements against U.S., policy but are developing a mechanism to avoid these sanctions and to compensate for the sanctions,” Zarif said.

“I didn’t spend two and a half years in negotiating this deal in order to simply walk away from it, because I know that there won’t be a better deal. There will never be a better deal for the United States,” Zarif said. “I can assure President Trump with all his negotiating skills that this is the best deal that was possible. The best deal for us. The best deal for Europe. The best deal for the United States the best deal for Russia and China and the best deal for the international community.”

There are perils for U.S. policy moving forward, particularly if sanctions against Iran are so harsh they motivate Europe to create a permanent alternative financial system to keep some Iranian oil flowing, a possibility seemingly acknowledged by the Trump administration last week with talk of easing the November round of sanctions in a few critical areas.

China, Turkey, and India are so thirsty for oil that they might balk at enforcing the strictest of the upcoming measures, a diplomatic crisis Washington could only defuse by granting waivers. Russia is either salivating at the thought of competing Iranian crude vanishing from the global market or eager to realign regional politics by helping Iran evade sanctions and sell its products to customers like India, in the opinion of various analysts.

An Iranian regime deprived of income and obliged to focus on domestic political unrest has less time and money to sow mischief abroad. It also has less money to spend on the kind of nuclear cheating uncovered by Israel and absurdly downplayed by Western media and international organizations supportive of President Obama’s nuclear deal.

National Security Adviser John Bolton stressed last week after a meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, whose nation borders on Iran, that stern measures are needed to contain the Iranian threat.

“As I explained to the prime minister, we want to put maximum pressure on Iran because it has not given up the pursuit of nuclear weapons It remains the world’s central banker of international terrorism. And we’re concerned about its ballistic-missile programs and its active conventional military operations in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere,” Bolton said.

“We are going to squeeze Iran because we think their behavior in the Middle East and, really globally, is malign and needs to be changed,” he explained.

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