In a broad interview with Iran’s leading international news agency and international daily, Dr Steinbock takes a critical look at the at the new US Sanctions Act in light of the multilateral accord among US, Germany, UK, France, Russia and China.

In an interview with Lachin Rezaian for the Mehr New Agency, the major Iranian news agency, and The Tehran Times, Iran’s leading international daily, Dr Steinbock examines the tacit goals of the US Act, Iran’s policy options amid US power transition, the Democrats’ odd Iran reversal, the Trump Iran scenarios and the role of the EU, Russia and China.

Most importantly, he warns about “bilateral traps” and advocates “multilateral cooperation” to maintain and sustain international credibility.


Tacit goals of the Iran Sanctions Act

Mehr News Agency (MNA)- Recently, the US Senate  unanimously voted to extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) for one decade after it was easily cleared in the House of Representatives in November. What goals lay behind the extension of the ISA and why is US now violating its obligations after months of negotiations?

The comprehensive nuclear accord (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, July 2015) offered Iran relief from US, UN and multilateral sanctions on Iran’s energy, financial, shipping, automotive and other sectors. These (primary) sanctions were lifted after the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) certification in January 2016 that Iran had complied with the agreement. Yet, secondary sanctions (on firms) remained in place, along with sanctions applying to US companies, including US banks.

During the past month, there has been hectic activity in Washington to reverse the White House’s Iran policy during the two Obama terms. In its November report on Iran sanctions, the Congressional Research Service typically argued that the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) “might not be inconsistent with the JCPOA” and that it is “unclear” whether the position of the incoming Trump administration on the JCPOA and on legislation “might conflict with US commitments in the JCPOA.”

As political exigencies have been seized to justify the extension of sanctions, their legal status is questionable even in the US. Reportedly, the new efforts seek to harm Iran for another 10 years. Between 2010 and 2013, the sanctions significantly hurt Iran’s economy contributing to the fall of crude oil exports from 2.5 million barrels per day (mbd) to 1.1 mbd by mid-2013. That, in turn, has been compounded by the plunge in oil prices since early 2014. Furthermore, the sanctions made inaccessible Iran’s $120 billion in reserves held in banks abroad. Before stabilization in 2015, Iran’s economy reportedly shrank by 9% in the two sanctions years. Current growth projections, which exceed 4%, are predicated on sanctions relief.

The new strategic objective seems to be thus to harm Iran’s economy through a new 10-year long fall in crude oil exports, relatively low prices, and continued obstacles against access to remaining Iranian reserves abroad. Such strategic primacies – whatever their nominal rationale – represent a unilateral move that seeks to undermine a multilateral agreement.

Iran policy amid the US power transition

MNA: -JCPOA is not a bilateral deal between Iran and the US, but a multilateral accord between seven countries and confirmed by the European Union (EU) and the UN Security Council (UNSC); it cannot be blocked by a single party. Do you think that the US can undermine the multilateral agreement, and if so, do you expect international response?

In the evolving status quo, Iran should be prepared for all contingencies, including a potential US effort to undermine the multilateral agreement and an accompanying effort to do so with (or possibly without) a tacit support of all or some of its partners.

In the US, the effort to extend sanctions is taking place during the transition of power as alignments are shifting in the White House, among the two major parties, and even the incoming administration. In these circumstances, it is distressing that the Obama White House, after years of talks and intense promotion of the deal, has not raised serious objections against the effort to undermine and mitigate the pact.

During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump railed against the nuclear pact, while members of the Republican Party have called him to tear up the agreement. Among the critics, neoconservatives play a critical role as they did in 2003 when the Iraq war was legitimized with arguments that were known to be flawed.

Within the Republican Party, the Iran efforts reflect both tactical goals, which involve timing, and strategic objectives, which reflect the incoming administration’s tenets. These efforts began in the House in mid-November – right after the election in the US – and in the Congress in early December – only days before the Electoral College is due to vote for President and Vice President. From the standpoint of Trump and Republican neoconservatives, the “Iran card” has allowed the new administration to strengthen its position as some anti-Trump Republicans continue to lobby against him before the Electoral College vote. Indeed, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a possible candidate for Trump secretary of state, has said that the renewal ensures Trump can re-impose sanctions Obama lifted under the deal.

However, the JCPOA is a multilateral accord. After the Senate vote, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that, while the implementation of the JCPOA is a long process and may face occasional obstacles, the deal is “a multilateral agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council, and its implementation must not be affected by any country’s domestic affairs.”

Any multilateral deal is a compromise. And a deal is a deal.

Democrats’ odd Iran reversal

MNA – In the Congress, the Democrats supported JCPOA in Congress, including Elizabeth Warren, Benjamin Cardin and Harry Reid. Yet, the Democrats have now unanimously voted for the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) claiming that the measure will not lead to the violation of JCPOA. In light of this discrepancy, do you think that the US is sending a strong signal that any US president would have the ability to snap back sanctions on Iran? Is the extension a shortcut to tear JCPOA up, as President-elect Donald Trump has promised?

Not all Democrats agreed with the reversal in the Iran policy. When the Senate voted to extend the sanctions against Iran, Senator Bernie Sanders was absent. During his campaign, Sanders portrayed Iran as a major player in the Middle East arguing that diplomatic relations between Iran and the West would be critical for both regional stability and long-term security of the US and its allies. Yet, most Democrats have been surprisingly quick to reverse their longstanding position regarding the Iran pact in a matter of weeks, for purely political calculations.

Yesterday, Democrats still accused the Trump campaign for unilateral moves that sought to undermine the multilateral JCPOA and for dragging Washington again into the kind of international quicksand that severely impaired America’s credibility in the Bush era. Yet today, Democrats claim the ISA extension does not violate the pact because it continues a sanctions regime that is already in place. Obama is expected to sign the extension and, after failed personal lobbying against the extension, his Secretary of State John Kerry has been marginalized.

The new rationale seems to be that “it is OK to return to primary sanctions, which we agreed to

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