How New Sanctions Will Be Perceived in Iran

The moment the United States removed their nuclear sanctions on Iran, they slapped new sanctions on Iran, claiming that two Iranian tests of ballistic missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear warheads violates Security Council resolutions. The Iranians had no sooner learned that nuclear sanctions had been removed following the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) announcement that they had verified Iran’s compliance with all of their obligations under the P5+1 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement than they learned that new sanctions had been imposed.

The JCPOA commits Iran to not undertaking “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for a defined period of time. Iran insists they are in compliance with this requirement because they say the missiles are designed to carry a conventional payload and deny that the missiles are capable of being nuclear armed.  Iran expert Gareth Porter has argued that the inclusion of the ballistic missile clause was a victory for Iran in the first place precisely because “the provision ended what had been a meaningless ban, because its ballistic missiles were not designed for nuclear weapons.” The other P5+1 nations seem to agree, as no other P5+1 nation has joined the Americans.

With Iranian elections coming fast upon the lifting of sanctions, the new sanctions are not likely to do serious harm to President Hassan Rouhani. The lifted sanctions dwarf the new sanctions, and he can easily claim that the removal of sanctions, the return of Iranian oil to the market and the freeing of over $100 billion of frozen Iranian money will provide a huge infusion into the Iranian economy and improve the lives of Iranians even minus the much smaller new sanctions. The new sanctions will not cripple Iran’s economy or even touch most Iranians. They will affect only a few companies and people who ship the relevant technologies to Iran.

But the new American sanctions will add volume to the hardline argument in Tehran. Though they shouldn’t effect Rouhani’s standing with the people, they may increase the internal challenges he faces. While Obama’s new sanctions were likely meant to assuage the hardliners who oppose him domestically, they will likely have the opposite effect on the hardliners who oppose Rouhani. Rouhani’s hardline opposition will perceive the new sanctions as just the sort of American deception and trickery that they have been waiting to reveal itself and as proof of Rouhani’s naïveté in trusting the American negotiators.

Iranian hardliners who oppose Rouhani have long argued that it is naïve to trust that after you have given the Americans everything that you promised to give, they will give you everything they promised to give. And the hardliners have history on their side: they have seen it happen too many times before. They will not feel reassured by Obama waiting for Rouhani to completely play his hand by complying with all Iran’s nuclear commitments and agreeing to a prisoner exchange to slap sanctions on the very next day. It looks too much like what has happened before.

When Hashemi Rafsanjani was president of Iran, he too tried to improve relations with the U.S. When he exerted Iran’s regional influence and intervened on behalf of the United States to help win the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon, President H.W. Bush promised that Iran’s help would "be long remembered" and that "goodwill begets goodwill." But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Iran did what it promised to do; America waited for it to be done, and then did not do what it promised to do.  Instead, Bush betrayed Rafsanjani and did nothing in return: the Americans sent word that Rafsanjani should expect no American reciprocation.

Later, Rafsanjani would keep Iran officially neutral when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But that neutrality was really a pro-American stance. While Iran rejected Iraqi pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality, they allowed the US to use Iranian airspace. Once again, though, the US failed to return good will for good will. Though Rafsanjani had hoped to end Iran’s international isolation by helping the Americans, when the US convened the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference, they invited nearly every affected nation while snubbing Iran, closing the door on its face, and continuing its international isolation.

The next Iranian president, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami was also willing to hope that America would do what Iran wanted if Iran consistently did what America wanted. So, in response to 9/11, Iran backed the US, cooperating with them against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, who provided many of the anti-Taliban fighters once America and its allies invaded Afghanistan, was, at least in part, put together by Iran, who placed it in the hands of the Americans. Iran offered its air bases to the US and permitted the US to carry out search and rescue missions for downed US planes. The Iranians supplied the US with intelligence on Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets. Iran was also crucial in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and offered their help in rebuilding Afghanistan’s army.

Not only did President George W. Bush offer Iran nothing in return, in exchange for Iran’s goodwill and crucial assistance, in January 2002, President Bush included Iran in his Axis of Evil speech. Khatami was stunned. And the hardliners who opposed his efforts used this George Bush speech as evidence that you can never negotiate a deal with the United States.

Iranian hardliners are likely to see the historical pattern repeating itself in the sanctions betrayal. They have not only seen this pattern of betrayal before, but they have also seen the treacherous use of the ballistic missile argument before.

The US is arguing that the ballistic missiles Iran has twice tested are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The Iranians say they’re not. The rest of the P5+1 community seems to agree. There is a history of the US playing the ballistic missile card to maintain intense pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

The 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) clearly stated the conclusion of the American intelligence community that “no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada.” But the intelligence community was pressured by a “conscious political strategy” to revise the NIE. The US was using false, politicized claims about Iran’s ballistic missile program.

One of the principle elements of the “Laptop Documents” delivered to US intelligence in 2004 was what purported to be studies for redesigning the reentry vehicle of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile to allow it to be armed with a nuclear weapon. But aside from other serious problems, like that the Laptop documents came from the Mujahadeen-e-Khalp (MEK), a terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime and a notoriously unreliable source of information on Iran’s nuclear program, the studies had serious technical flaws. Gareth Porter clearly explains these flaws in his book Manufactured Crisis. Porter explains that a US government funded nuclear laboratory had concluded that none of the drawings in the ballistic missile studies would have worked. More damningly, Porter reports that analysts realized that the reentry vehicle drawn in the schematics of the Laptop Documents didn’t match the reentry vehicle on the missile that Iran was currently using: the author (forger) of the documents didn’t know about Iran’s current missile. Despite the manifest unreliability of the documents on Iran’s ballistic missile program, they were used to put enormous pressure on Iran during the nuclear negotiations process.

The Russians would also point out the inaccuracy of US claims about Iran’s ballistic missile program. A 2007 cable revealed by WikiLeaks [07MOSCOW1877-a] that came out of the US embassy in Russia admitted that “The Russians disputed or disagreed with most US assumptions and decisions regarding threats posed by . . . Iranian ICBM development. US forecasts, such as the 1998 “Rumsfield Commission” and 1999 “National Intelligence Estimate” had proven incorrect.”

A later WikiLeaks cable [10STATE17263] coming out of the State Department revealed that American media reports in late 2010 that US intelligence was in possession of evidence that Iran had a missile that could reach Europe were seriously misleading. What the cable actually says about the evidence is that when Russian experts on the Iranian nuclear program who were participating on a joint threat assessment with the US rejected the evidence, the American couldn’t support their claims. Commenting on the WikiLeaks cable, Gareth Porter says that the US claimed that Iran had a North Korean BM-25 missile but were forced to admit that they had no photographic or other hard evidence. The same cable shows that the Obama administration’s bluff of keeping pressure on Iran by playing the nuclear capable ballistic missile card was called by the Russians with the insistence that “Iran has no ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons at this time.”

So, though the sanctions sleight of hand will likely not effect Rouhani’s ability to show the fulfillment of his election promise to bring sanction relief and benefit to Iranians, it does play into the hand of hardliners who could use it to challenge him internally. To the hardliners, the disappearance and reappearance of sanctions will be seen as evidence that Rouhani was naïve to trust that anything would be different under Obama: history shows that Americans cannot be trusted to deliver on their promises after Iran first delivers on theirs. And the playing of the nuclear capable ballistic missile card will also been seen by them as fitting in with a long historical pattern of using that card to maintain pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.