TSG IntelBrief: The Complexities of Trump’s Iran Policies
February 9, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Pushback from China over the Trump administration’s new sanctions on Iran highlights the multidimensional challenges the U.S. faces in confronting Iranian transgressions.
• China and Russia—both key partners in multilateral attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear program—have consistently criticized unilateral sanctions against Tehran.
• The inclusion of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—all countries with sizeable Shi’a populations—in the Trump administration’s recent executive order on immigration has the potential to inadvertently strengthen Iran’s regional influence.
• The inclusion of these countries in the order could serve as an endorsement of the Iranian narrative that the U.S. does not differentiate between its Muslim allies and its Muslim enemies.
On February 3, the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Iran after the country conducted its first ballistic missile test since President Trump took office. While the missile test demonstrated Iran’s continued belligerence, the unanticipated effects of recent Trump administration policies against Iran demonstrate the multidimensional challenges the U.S. faces in confronting Iran’s aggressive expansion in the Middle East.
The new sanctions were designed to specifically target Iran’s ballistic missile program and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). However, the administration was forced to cast a wide net encompassing 25 targeted individuals and entities spread among at least three countries, including Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and China. China reacted indignantly to the inclusion of several of its citizens and companies, highlighting the secondary and tertiary effects of economic sanctions designed to target specific entities. China and Russia—both key partners in multilateral attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear program—have consistently criticized unilateral sanctions against Tehran. The Chinese dissent over the sanctions comes in the context of broader U.S.-China tension over a host of issues including the South China Sea, the status of Taiwan, and North Korea’s nuclear program. Russia, with which the Trump administration is seeking closer relations, views Iran as a partner in the fight against terrorism and has often sought to shield the country from U.S. sanctions. The pushback over the Trump administration’s unilateral sanctions demonstrates that—despite President Trump’s strong preference for bilateralism—the U.S. will still have to contend with the multidimensional implications of its policies toward Iran.
The recent sanctions are not the only action the Trump administration has taken against Iran that could have unforeseen consequences. The inclusion of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—all countries with sizeable Shi’a populations—on a list of seven Muslim-majority countries from which the U.S. will temporarily stop accepting immigrants and refugees has the potential to alienate and marginalize the local allies on which the U.S. depends, inadvertently strengthening Iran’s influence. In several countries across the Middle East, U.S. strategy is a careful balancing act that simultaneously supports counterterrorism operations alongside local partners, while countering Iranian influence in the region. In Iraq, U.S. efforts to battle the so-called Islamic State rely heavily on a central government that is beholden to a majority Shi’a electorate, over which the Iranian government is keen to exercise influence. In the aftermath of the Trump administration’s immigration ban, many in the Iraqi government called for a reciprocal ban on U.S. citizens entering the country. Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces—a collection of powerful, sectarian, Iran-sponsored militia groups—called for the government to expel all Americans from the country. While it appears unlikely for now that the Iraqi government will institute a reciprocal ban, no country would benefit more from the expulsion of U.S. military and intelligence personnel than Iran.
There are similar considerations in Yemen and Syria, where Muslim U.S. allies bear the brunt of fighting against both the Islamic State and Iran’s proxies. Including these local partners in the immigration ban based solely on their country of origin casts them in the same shadow as those whom the U.S. considers enemies. Thus, in countries where local U.S. allies are already toeing a thin rhetorical line by collaborating with the U.S., the immigration ban could serve as an endorsement of the Iranian narrative that the U.S. does not differentiate between its Muslim allies and its Muslim enemies.
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