When President Donald Trump announced last week that the United States would reinstate sanctions on Iran and effectively end American involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the big question was whether his administration could convince other countries and global businesses to comply. It is still too early to know, but watching the initial reactions to Trump’s decision and to Iran’s resulting rocket attack on Israel, it seems Iran has fewer friends than some thought.
Trump faces a small challenge in unilaterally reinstating the Iran sanctions. The government can enforce the sanctions against American businesses and any business with a serious nexus to the US; however, it cannot enforce unilateral sanctions globally. As a result, for the sanctions to be truly effective, the Trump administration needs to encourage cooperation from other governments and international firms.
Richard Grenell, the recently confirmed US Ambassador to Germany, demonstrated the White House’s position in one of his first acts. He said: “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” However, the effectiveness of his warning or request, depending on how one sees it, is somewhat reliant on the voluntary cooperation of Germany and German firms. The US can punish American interests but not those unconnected to Washington.
The Trump administration will struggle to garner cooperation from some countries that have close economic ties with Iran. For example, the Chinese market provides a major piece of Iran’s revenue, with about 24 percent of Iranian oil exports going to China. Currently, the US has two other major issues on the table with China: Trade and North Korea. It is possible the US may leverage one of these other issues to gain China’s cooperation against Iran, but that is unlikely. The other issues are seen as more vitally important to American interests today.
Airbus, the European aviation giant, is apparently considering whether it can and should supply commercial aircraft to Iran. This comes after America’s Boeing was forced to end its plan to sell to Iran. Boeing knew from the time it began negotiations with Tehran that it was entirely possible it would not be allowed to deliver the planes, and it made some contingency plans, so the loss is not as severe as some say. However, Airbus would like to benefit from Boeing’s misfortune, so it must decide if it will risk the ire of the American government. If so, it must complete the sale before the sanctions officially come into effect again. However, some Airbus plane parts are actually US-made, so the sanctions could still apply.
Now Iran is also pushing back. The first major step taken by Tehran — besides the usual burning of US flags and chanting of “death to America” — was a rocket attack against Israel by its forces in Syria. This would not be the first time a country has reacted to international (and particularly American) action by attacking Israel. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did the same thing during Operation Desert Storm. Then, as now, a rogue regime hoped to garner support for itself by attacking Israel. Hussein’s intention was to draw Arab support away from the coalition, but it did not work. Similarly, Iran is hoping to draw support (most likely European support this time) by attacking Israel.
But it is not working. In fact, the attack on Israel may have further isolated Iran and won support for Israel. After Tel Aviv responded to the Iranian attacks by destroying related targets in Syria, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa tweeted: “Every state in the region, including Israel, is entitled to defend itself.” And, in Europe, Britain also came to Israel’s rhetorical defense against Iran.
Even Russia, an ally of Iran and the great protector of the Assad regime, was said to be on board with Israel’s counter-attacks in Syria. It is probably no coincidence that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin just before the escalation. Russia may be supporting the Assad regime in Syria, but it has other interests in the region that it wants to maintain.
There is a joke among conservatives in the US that perhaps President Barack Obama will one day be known as the leader who solved the Arab-Israeli conflict. After all, he more than anyone else pushed through the JCPOA, which essentially realigned allegiances in the Middle East. Iran’s military infiltration in Syria and Iraq and through proxies in Lebanon and Yemen has turned the tables on traditional regional alliances. It seems that the JCPOA has made friends, or at the very least associates, of anyone who opposes Iran.
One thing is certain: It is not a good sign for Iran if Bahrain, Britain and Russia are all backing Israel in this fight.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank, and the president of Transversal Consulting. She also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy