US sanctions against Iran under Trump

BY: Political Economy Journal

US sanctions against Iran under Trump

PEJOURNAL – U.S. government under Trump imposed many sanctions on Iran to force the Islamic Republic to accept the security interests of the West. This note assesses the characteristics of these sanctions. On May 8, 2018, US President Donald Trump kept his promise to leave JCPOA. The move marked the beginning of a policy called “maximum pressure” to force Iran to negotiate favorably with the West in the nuclear, missile and regional spheres.

Sanctions, number and objectives

The Trump government had imposed sanctions on Iran six times before leaving JCPOA, but then imposed sanctions on Iran 49 times before the US presidential election. This comparison shows that the most important policy tool has been “maximum pressure” sanctions. The data from this research note were extracted from the US Treasury Department’s Sanctions Statement on the Department’s website.

Many sanctions have been imposed on the axis of Resistance, including characters or groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, which were not evaluated in this list. At each time or date, a number of individuals and entities, and in some cases ships and planes, were subject to sanctions. These cases are except for two executive orders of the President on August 6, 2016 (90 days after leaving JCPOA) and November 5, 2016 (180 days after leaving JCPOA) that restored US sanctions against the Iranian nuclear case before the conclusion of JCPOA.

In total, 195 people, 310 sets, 136 ships and 100 aircraft were sanctioned during the Trump, all of which were ships and aircraft after leaving JCPOA, as well as 162 people (83%) and 268 institutions (86%) they were sanctioned.

More than 90% of the sanctions imposed during the Trump are secondary sanctions. The main difference between secondary sanctions and primary sanctions is that, in addition to the territory of the United States and its citizens, it punishes any individual, institution, or government that cooperates with the sanctions. Therefore, the main basis of the type of sanctions in the policy of “maximum pressure” is to prevent the cooperation of other countries and groups so that despite the unilateralism in the foreign policy of the Trump government, it can impose severe economic and political isolation against Iran. The chart below shows the timing of sanctions densities.

As can be seen, since the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, the number of sanctions has jumped significantly in terms of quantity. So that the number of new sanctions in 1398 compared to 1397 increased by more than 70%. This shows that Trump and the ruling White House, with the withdrawal from the JCPOA and the return of all previous sanctions, in addition to newer ones, intended to force Iran to negotiate in a weak position more quickly by intensifying pressure in a shorter period of time.

It was especially important for them that these talks take place before the US presidential election and bring a diplomatic achievement to the Trump government. Their miscalculation was that they thought that Iran would simply give in to favorable US negotiations, and they interpreted the JCPOA experience in this way.

Most of the sanctions have been labeled “counter-terrorism.” Because the issue of “counterterrorism” has a relative consensus among the elites of both US parties, it is difficult to remove this charge in the US governing body.

Pointing approach

The high number of sanctions indicates that US officials have sought to increase pressure on Iran with a punctual (Pointing) approach. The important point in the punctuation approach is its method. Thus, in a branch identification through a tree diagram, each individual or group associated with a sanctioned entity will be subject to the same tag at the same time or the next time.

For example, the “Basij” was sanctioned for allegedly transferring troops to the Resistance Front under the “anti-terrorism” label. The Basij Cooperative Foundation was then targeted for supporting the organization. In the next stage, Mellat, Sina and Mehr Eghtesad banks were sanctioned for claiming to invest in this foundation, and then “Mobarakeh Steel of Isfahan” was sanctioned due to its financial relation with Mehr Eghtesad Bank. In this process, the general managers, deputies and senior and well-known officials of these institutions are also subject to sanctions.

The scoring approach pursued two effective goals in increasing pressures. First, by closely monitoring individuals and groups influential in the economic, diplomatic, and political spheres in the field of decision-making and implementation, especially in the area of ​​sanctions neutralization, they identified them with full profile and aimed to make it difficult for Iran to continue its resistance.

Second, these sanctions were imposed not all at once but gradually over several periods of time and against economically influential institutions, especially export-oriented institutions such as the petrochemical and steel industries, with continuous pressures, as preventing the routine of the resistance process, they should also make the psychological operation of sanctions more effective. However, Iran’s resistance, despite the undeniable damage of sanctions, caused the number of sanctions to decrease by about 9% in 1399 compared to 1398. Because many targets had been sanctioned before.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the lack of new goals caused them to strengthen the sanctions on the previous cases with new labels in 11 cases in 1398 and 1399. Whereas before, they had done so only in two cases. Among the most important are the strengthening of sanctions on petrochemicals labeled “non-proliferation”, the sanctions on steel industries labeled “human rights violations” and the sanctions on the central bank labeled “anti-terrorism”.

Sanctions by label

Most of the sanctions have been labeled “counter-terrorism.” Because the issue of “counterterrorism” has a relative consensus among the elites of both American parties, it is difficult to remove this accusation in the US governing body. Therefore, sanction these people and institutions on the pretext of financing so-called terrorism and having links with the IRGC’s Quds Force or other resistance groups makes it more difficult to remove the label and lift the sanctions.

This label is in fact a kind of mining in the way of reviving JCPOA. If the US government wants to stay committed to JCPOA, it must abide by its commitments to Iran regarding the sale of oil and gas condensate and petrochemical products, as well as the lifting of sanctions on the steel, iron, copper and aluminum industries. But boycotting these cases with labels outside the scope of nuclear sanctions, and in particular the issue of “counterterrorism,” will face serious opposition in Congress, especially Republicans.

China is more likely than other governments to cooperate against sanctions, and then the UAE, because of its sheikhdom nature, provides opportunities to defuse sanctions compared to the centralized authoritarian construction of other Persian Gulf states.

The “non-proliferation” label is also a significant part of the sanctions, which have been imposed mainly on the pretext of sponsorship and links to Iran’s ballistic missile program. In fact, in addition to making it difficult to revive JCPOA, there is another goal in these sanctions, and that is to pave the way for negotiations on Iran’s regional activities and missile program. The future US negotiating team is likely to make lifting sanctions labeled “counter-terrorism” conditional on regional negotiations and sanctions labeled “non-proliferation” subject to limiting Iran’s missile program.

Another point is that the sanctions imposed on the IRGC by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on April 17, 2009, by annexing this military institution to the list of so-called terrorist groups, the legal basis for many of the US government’s sanctions against major Iranian financial and commercial complexes has been punishing them for allegedly or under the pretext of the slightest cooperation with the Revolutionary Guards under the labels of “counter-terrorism” or “non-proliferation.” In fact, under the pretext of this action, the US government can boycott the entire executive structure of the country, including the executive branch and other institutions, due to the financing of the IRGC.

The much smaller number of sanctions labeled “Human Rights Violations “, regardless of US allegations of accusations against Iran, also show the insignificance of human rights issues for Trump government policymakers, and that subversives and opposition groups are merely instrumental role in US policymaking to increase the pressure on Iran, they are set aside by the White House as a dirty handkerchief in due course.

Another point in assessing sanctions is the location of the institutions under sanctions. In addition to 228 entities in Iran, 36 in China, 18 in the UAE, 4 in Lebanon, 4 in Malaysia, 4 in Mexico, 3 in Iraq, 3 in Germany, 3 in Singapore, 2 in Britain, 2 in South Africa, 2 in Ukraine, 1 in Oman and 1 in Belgium, were subject to sanctions. The point is that China is more likely than other governments to cooperate against sanctions, and then the UAE, due to its sheikhdom nature, provides opportunities to defuse sanctions compared to the centralized authoritarian construction of other Persian Gulf states.


The experience of Iran’s resistance to sanctions has shown that this policy has lost its function in forcing Iran to surrender to US demands through overuse. At the same time, the experience of practical cooperation of many governments with the United States in the implementation of these sanctions showed that in order to attract the cooperation of other countries, there is little need to persuade them and impose multilateral sanctions. Rather, US economic hegemony could force them to comply with unilateral US sanctions.