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A Look At The Limits Of U.S. Sanctions On Iran


The Trump administration has taken a calculated risk in pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions in an effort to get a better one. And that begs the question, how powerful is the threat of U.S. sanctions, especially if other countries don't support them? Simon Gass was the British ambassador to Iran, then went on to be a negotiator of the nuclear deal.

SIMON GASS: If European companies are faced with a choice of doing business either with the United States or Iran, overwhelmingly they will choose to do business with the United States. But we shouldn't forget that there will also be some countries that don't actually have links with the United States. They don't trade with the United States and therefore are much less susceptible to United States' secondary sanctions.

CORNISH: Give us some context here because the Trump administration has repeatedly relied on sanctions not just with Iran but also North Korea, Venezuela, Russia and others. Looking back, I mean, how effective are sanctions wielding foreign policy in this way?

GASS: Well, sanctions can be effective under some circumstances. Although if you look at case histories, there aren't many ways you can show the sanctions has necessarily achieved the desired effect. But I think Iran was an exception in 2012, 2013. It came to the negotiating table as a result of the economic pressure which had been placed on it by sanctions. But we shouldn't forget of course that those were not U.S. bilateral sanctions alone. That was an international sanctions regime which had a United Nations component. It certainly had a strong European component. And a number of other countries were also enforcing sanctions.

Now we are in a position in which although the United States is going to reimpose sanctions, the vast majority of countries around the world do not regard that as a legitimate action and are therefore going to be much less active in supporting the policing of that sort of sanctions regime. So it will be considerably less effective.

CORNISH: What does that tell you about where the U.S. is in terms of what kind of leverage it has to either convince Iran to come back to a table or get allies back together again to sort of renegotiate a new deal - 'cause that's what this is all about, right? The Trump administration says, we can get a better deal.

GASS: Well, that's what the Trump administration says. But then of course it releases a whole list of demands on Iran which are not related to the nuclear deal but which would effectively ask Iran to surrender its whole position in the Middle East and comply with the wishes of the United States. Now, I would support pretty much everything on that list individually, but I don't think that coercion against Iran is what you're going to have to exert in order to achieve the results which the United States wishes.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, do countries in Europe have any leverage, right?

GASS: Well, I think that they have a bit of leverage. They can, as I say, allow lines of credit for - particularly for smaller and medium-sized businesses that wants to maintain trade with Iran and perhaps don't have links with the United States. They can find ways to allow Iran to export oil, which will be very important. And of course that's not just European countries but also countries like China and Japan and South Korea who have always taken quite a lot of Iranian oil. So I think there are things which the Europeans and others can do to try to make sure that the nuclear deal stays alive, but I wouldn't underestimate the difficulty of doing that.

CORNISH: Have we seen anything like this? Has there been a moment where the U.S. has said, we're going to go it alone?

GASS: Sure, there have been cases in the past - in the 1990s over Cuba, in the 1980s over oil pipelines connected with Russia. We have seen similar circumstances, but there's a big difference in that today's world is much more interconnected, and therefore the effect of U.S. secondary sanctions is very much greater.

I do think, though, that there is a major concern in Europe about what this means for the very strong partnership and alliance that we have had with the United States in many, many foreign policy fields where the United States has traditionally taken a lead but has brought other countries with it. In this case, what we see is the United States taking a lead but frankly giving the indication that it doesn't much care whether other countries follow or not. And I think that that is quite damaging.

CORNISH: Simon Gass - he served as British ambassador to Iran from 2009 to 2011. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GASS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.