AS election day in the US draws closer, the Trump administration is tightening the screws on arch-nemesis Iran through more sanctions, apparently to please the American president’s right-wing voter base, and his allies in the Middle East. Some days ago, Washington sanctioned 18 Iranian banks, while any foreign parties dealing with these entities will also invite American wrath. This, in effect, is a recipe to completely strangulate the Iranian economy that is already reeling from international isolation due to American pressure, as well as the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. While the US treasury secretary has said “humanitarian transactions” with Iran would be exempt, the international financial community will likely not be willing to process these, fearful of earning Washington’s ire despite the reassurance. The justification for the latest sanctions? Iran’s “support of terrorist activities and ... its nuclear activities”. This, quite frankly, is a flimsy excuse, for while Iran may be playing an expansionist game in its own backyard, the American rhetoric is unconvincing, especially when it has no problems with allies that have abysmal human rights records. Tehran has reacted by terming the American move “economic and medical terrorism”. Indeed, independent observers have said US sanctions have badly affected Iran’s efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, especially considering that the Islamic Republic has one of the highest caseloads in the region.

While Donald Trump is trying to please his domestic constituency and Middle Eastern friends by pushing Iran to the wall, it is not wise policy to further increase the temperature in a volatile region. Presidential elections in Iran are due next year, and constant American pressure may propel an ideological hardliner towards the Iranian presidency, one who might have little interest in talking to Washington and prefer fighting the US and its allies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. Moreover, if a new Iranian administration decides to jettison the nuclear deal — which America unilaterally left in 2018 — the US will be principally to blame. To avoid these worst-case scenarios, saner elements within the American establishment need to prevent the rhetoric from escalating. While Mr Trump makes attempts to win re-election, this cannot be at the cost of vitiating the situation further in the Middle East. A Biden administration may or may not seek to repair ties with Iran after Nov 3. Therefore, Mr Trump must hold off on his confrontational actions vis-à-vis Iran and give diplomacy a chance.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2020

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