The striking, even extraordinary, feature of Donald Trump’s fresh cache of sanctions against Iran must be that these have been targeted against individuals and not the country per se.
The objective is pretty obvious ~ to ratchet up the pressure on the leaders without going to war. The bombing of Iran in the aftermath of the attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the shooting of a US drone was called off ten minutes before the aircraft were scheduled to take off; for once the US President had heeded the caveat of the Generals that at least 150 people would perish in the bombardment.
Having also realised that sanctions can scarcely bring a regime to its knees, Mr Trump has opted for another bout of economic reprisal, one that is aimed at the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and other officials, including eight Revolutionary Guard commanders. Notably, the country’s moderate President , Hassan Rouhani, does not figure in the line of fire.
It is generally acknowledged by the Western powers that Mr Rouhani has abided by the provisions of the agreement on matters nuclear, concluded by President Barack Obama in 2015 and jettisoned by President Trump. It is distinctly apparent too that the US has targeted the omnipotent head of the religious establishment in a theocratic swathe of the world.
Not that Mr Rouhani plays second fiddle to Ayatollah Khamenei on the international stage; but the latter does play a pivotal role in matters of governance, even the nuclear programme. Signing an executive order in the Oval Office, President Trump called the increased sanctions “hard-hitting”, saying they would deny the supreme leader, his office and those closely affiliated to him access to key financial resources.
The US President has couched his strained defence of the sanctions with the assertion, “I can only tell you we cannot ever let Iran have a nuclear weapon.” Monday’s counter-mobilisation by the White House is bound to freeze billions of dollars in Iranian assets. The economic impact would be severe, if limited not the least because Iran is already a heavily- sanctioned country.
But it would arguably be rather too simplistic to aver that “the newly announced sanctions are symbolic” in the manner of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. To an extent, this is true because the newly sanctioned people and entities are already insulated from the international financial system.
The fact remains that Mr Trump has turned the screw with a rather unusual spin on the diplomacy of sanctions. President Trump’s willingness to hold talks with Tehran without preconditions cannot readily inspire optimism; the sanctions appear to make such talks even less likely.