Yes, “sanctions are coming,” as President Trump touted in an asinine Game of Thrones–themed tweet Friday. (An allusion to “Winter is coming” isn’t exactly the most reassuring sentiment when it comes to a potential nuclear conflict.) On Nov. 4 at 11:59 p.m., the U.S.
will reapply a slew of sanctions on Iran, including curbs on the key oil and banking sectors, that had been waived under the 2015 nuclear deal.
As BuzzFeed’s Hayes Brown notes, the tweet has probably already done what it was intended to do—gotten everyone talking about the sanctions. It also elides the fact that these sanctions will not be as tough as what hardliners called for.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Friday that the U.S. will grant temporary waivers to eight countries to continue purchasing Iranian oil. The full list, which has not been published, reportedly includes Japan, India, and South Korea—all major importers of Iranian oil. Taiwan and Turkey may have been granted waivers as well. Negotiations on a waiver for China, the top Iranian oil consumer, will reportedly continue through the weekend.
Pompeo said the waivers were temporary and only granted to countries that had made “important moves” toward reducing their purchases of Iranian oil. But as Bloomberg notes, the move could also be read as an attempt to “ensure that global oil prices don’t spike—especially with the U.S. midterm elections just a few days away.” In early October, oil prices hit their highest level since 2014 in anticipation of the expected loss of Iranian supply, but have since eased with growing anticipation of at least some waivers. Prices fell on Friday after the announcement.
The waivers, along with a decision not to attempt to bar Iranian banks from the global SWIFT financial messaging system, have disappointed Iran hawks who hoped for a more aggressive “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and argue that the concessions will embolden Iran to simply wait out the Trump administration. National security adviser John Bolton, who reportedly broke with Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in opposing the waivers, has refused to participate in the rollout of the sanctions, according to Washington Examiner.
Exemptions or no, the threat of sanctions has already prompted buyers to stay away from Iranian oil, and the impact on the country’s economy will likely be significant. But there’s reason to be skeptical that this will accomplish the snapback sanctions’ stated goal: forcing Iran to return to the negotiating table to reach a new deal encompassing not only its nuclear program but also its ballistic missiles and support for militant groups throughout the Middle East. No Iranian regime is likely to accede to the conditions the Trump administration has laid out, no matter how dire economic conditions become. As a new analysis by the International Crisis Group shows, there’s little historical data to suggest that Iran curtails its disruptive foreign policy when oil revenues are down. “Rather, the extent to which the Islamic Republic feels threatened or senses opportunity in its neighborhood largely defines its conduct,” the report reads:
That’s not to say the pain won’t be felt by ordinary Iranians. As Reuters reports, prices of rice, bread, cooking oil, and other staples have soared since the U.S. administration reinstated the first round of sanctions last August, and the Iranian currency, the rial, has plummeted.
The purpose of sanctions is not to make the target country’s population suffer—it’s to change a government’s behavior. In this case, however, the former outcome seems a lot more likely. That’s nothing to celebrate, or to brag about.