Washington unleashes a new show of force

Washington unleashes a new show of force

Giuseppe Acconcia | Journalist focusing on the Middle East
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Donald Trump's main concern after imposing sanctions on Russia and North Korea is that these could bring both countries closer to each other and to Iran. US measures, designed to isolate Iran, will indirectly affect the Vienna deal that scaled back Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

United States president Donald Trump has reluctantly approved financial sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea after the measures received bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Relations between Washington and Moscow are already severely strained thanks to Russiagate, the alleged Kremlin interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Describing the legislation as “severely flawed”, Trump said: “By limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together.”

Former president Barack Obama had already imposed sanctions against Russia, but president Vladimir Putin had held off from retaliating. At least 755 American diplomats must now leave Moscow by 1 September.

Iran also hit by sanctions

Congress has also reimposed sanctions on Iran after lifting them in January 2016. It says Tehran has continued to develop and test ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and to support what it defines as terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In mid July, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on eighteen Iranian politicians and entities for supporting Tehran’s ballistic missile program. It has also repeatedly accused Iran of supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and arming Houthi rebels in Yemen. The body at the center of the new sanctions is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), now blacklisted by the US for its involvement in the missile program. The sanctions are targeted at IRGC agents and associates involved with making or trafficking weapons of mass destruction, and at anyone importing arms to Iran or providing financial or other assistance for this purpose. They also affect individuals involved in torture, extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights abuses. The sanctions include confiscation of property, a ban on entry to the United States, and a freeze on financial transactions.

The response to the sanctions

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed the sanctions were a violation of international law. “The United States is aggressively pushing forward, one after another, crude anti-Russian actions,” he said. “[It] arrogantly ignores the positions and interests of other countries.”

Lavrov also warned that the sanctions could indirectly affect European businesses. This is a matter of concern for the European Commission and the German Committee on East European Economic Relations, which have called on Brussels to respond if it proves to be the case.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have accused the United States of using sanctions to undermine the 2015 Vienna nuclear agreement, which Donald Trump repeatedly criticized during his presidential campaign. US banks have for years been reluctant to unfreeze Iranian oil assets. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi has warned that the “hostile” US measures could impact the implementation of the nuclear deal, and that Teheran reserves the right to respond accordingly.

The sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, imposed just before the summer recess, have significantly affected relations between Washington and Moscow. Although targeted at the Revolutionary Guards and the missile program, they could indirectly damage the Vienna agreement. The United States is trying to isolate Iran and reduce its role in regional conflict, but this has simply resulted in closer ties between Iran and key European governments since moderate president Hassan Rohani won a second term.