After more than a year of negotiations and crises, President Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal last week as he announced that the United States would unilaterally reimpose sweeping sanctions targeting the Iranian economy. In announcing this decision, Trump drew a direct line to his ongoing negotiations with North Korea and emphasized how his decision would bolster U.S. leverage over the regime in Pyongyang. The decision, he said, demonstrates that “the United States no longer makes empty threats.”
While withdrawal will let United States once again use aggressive sanctions against Tehran, this decision will – paradoxically – negatively affect Washington’s ability to successfully use economic pressure in the future. These measures have been one of the most powerful U.S. foreign policy tools – what brought Tehran to the negotiation table in the first place. Yet, the U.S. administration is putting this powerful instrument at risk.
The damage caused by short-sighted use of sanctions on Iran will spread because these measures do not exist in isolation. Each case sets a precedent that informs future use. Separate sanctions episodes are therefore inextricably linked. Muddle on Iran sanctions will become muddle on Russia sanctions. Uncertainty over Venezuela will become uncertainty over North Korea.
The reintroduction of sanctions as part of the termination of the Iran deal will harm U.S. credibility in two key areas required for the success of any sanctions program.
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