After months of debate inside his administration, President Trump has finally decided to further tighten sanctions on Iran. Iran hawks have for months been urging the president to end the waivers that granted eight nations to continue importing Iranian oil, the Islamist regime’s main source of foreign cash. In doing so, Trump is taking a substantial risk. But it is one worth taking.
The fallout from the move could lead to a substantial hike in oil prices this summer. It could also greatly complicate relations with China — Iran’s largest remaining customer for oil — just as the administration nears the end of complicated trade negotiations with Beijing. And Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and thereby shut down the shipping of oil to the West from its enemies on the Arabian Peninsula, which could potentially lead to the sort of war scenario that Trump most wants to avoid.
These are strong reasons for caution. Yet far from a foolhardy gamble, Trump’s decision is the most sensible choice available to him.
Why did Trump do it? He knows that the sanctions he re-imposed after pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have had a powerful impact on Iran. As the New York Times recently reported, the sanctions, contrary to the predictions of Trump’s critics, have had a devastating impact. Among those most feeling the pinch from the austerity imposed by American restrictions on commerce with Iran are the terrorist groups that it funds.
The sanctions, reports the Times, have created an economic crisis for Tehran, causing it to cut down on the money it spends funding both terrorists and the barbarous Assad regime it helped prop up via military intervention in the Syrian civil war. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently conceded that U.S. sanctions have hurt the ability of his Iranian masters to fund his group’s misdeeds.
The Obama administration lifted sanctions and gave to companies and countries thousands of waivers that permitted them to do business with Iran, despite U.S. laws that forbade such conduct. The Trump administration has tried both to shut down legal methods of commerce with the ayatollah’s regime and to ferret out illegal scams. Last month, the Treasury Department announced that it had disrupted a billion-dollar currency-trading scheme that Tehran used to help fund the military adventures of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
But so long as Iran was still able to count on China, India, Japan, Turkey, Italy, Greece, South Korea, and Taiwan to buy its oil, it could fund terror and work to achieve its goal of regional hegemony. Proceeds from oil sales also allowed these brutal theocrats to keep the restive Iranian people from threatening the regime.
With the Iranian economy tanking, this is the right moment for the U.S. to tighten the noose around Tehran and send a signal to our European allies, who, valuing their own financial interests more than the collective security of the West, have continued to trade with Iran using “special-purpose vehicles.” The administration’s goals — to force Iran to cease its ballistic-missile tests, end its support for terrorism, roll back its effort to create a land bridge to the Mediterranean, and renegotiate the disastrous nuclear agreement that gave it a legal path to a bomb — remained out of reach so long as the waivers stood.
Trump is particularly sensitive to rising gas prices and has tweeted about the need for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf State allies to increase oil production. This would help cushion the impact of ending Iran’s exports. Luckily, these states regard restraining Iran as essential to their own security.
As for China, there are reasons to cut off its financial trickery, which allow it to evade American sanctions. Even if Trump makes concessions to China in return for their cooperation on Iran, this will be a decision worth making.
Iran’s talk about menacing the shipping traffic in the Gulf is more worrisome. But this is far from the first time Tehran has made such threats. And though the downsides of a confrontation should not be underestimated, the Iranian regime has always been extremely cautious when it comes to confronting a superior military power like the United States.
In any case, allowing Iran to engage in such commerce only strengthens the regime. Obama enriched Iran by unfreezing assets and ending sanctions. That put weapons and money in the hands of Hezbollah and the IRGC. It also helped other terror groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Houthis in Yemen create more grave threats to regional security. Obama’s media “echo chamber” was certain that a unilateral re-imposition of sanctions wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Yet the first stage of re-imposed sanctions has begun to work. If Trump is to finish the job, gas-price hikes, Chinese threats, and Iran’s latest bluffs shouldn’t hold him back now that the ayatollahs’ backs are really up against the wall.