Obama’s Grand Strategy of Sanction Regimes

President Obama’s use of sanctions seeks to force hostile countries to fall in line.

President Barack Obama is briefed in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington DC, September 2
President Barack Obama is briefed in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington DC, September 2 (White House/Pete Souza)

When President Barack Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act last June, he envisaged the path of sanctions being integrated into a grand strategy aimed at making hostile countries fall in line. Iran is the first subject of this strategy.

The sanctions regime imposed upon Iran largely targets its petroleum industry; the mainstay of Iran’s economy. The aim is to squeeze the Islamic Republic’s fuel imports and enhance its international isolation.

Obama decided to take a tougher stand on Iran’s nuclear program after the country failed to reciprocate his attempt at d├ętente early in his presidency. As a candidate, Obama promised to hold unconditional talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and when riots erupted in Tehran and other Iranian cities in the wake of Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection last year, Washington did not interfere. The administration hardly intended to engineer a regime change in Iran as it did in 1953 when then Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in favor of the shah with the support of the CIA.

No matter criticism from the right about his apparent lack of assertiveness toward Iran, President Obama understood that with the war in Afghanistan raging, he could do little more than push for sanctions. Moreover, the United States could use the support of Iran’s Shia majority in fighting what is largely a Sunni uprising in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Indeed, it appeared as though Obama was prepared to accommodate Iran’s quest for regional power which would allow it greater leverage in the affairs of Iraq’s Shiite population.

Ahmadinejad however was set on playing the “anti-American” card to his domestic audience and had to paint the United States as the “Great Satan” in order to secure his own position. He knew that with the United States tangled up in two Middle Eastern wars and an economy struggling to recover, it could not afford to undertake any sort of unilateral military action against Iran.

Iran decided to court Brazil and Turkey instead and reached a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with these two countries last May. The United States could not accept this deal and continued to push for a United Nations Security Council Resolution on Iran. In June, the Council adopted a sanctions resolution which only Brazil and Turkey opposed. Both the European Union and the United States subsequently imposed additional sanctions of their own.

To further tighten the screws on Iran, Obama borrowed some from the “dollar diplomacy” of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. What had been put to garbage by the neoconservatives under George W. Bush suddenly made a comeback with the Obama Administration.

Now, the ball is in Iran’s corner again. If it doesn’t meet up with America’s expectations, there is every reason to assume that the sanctions and isolation will work and Iran follows down the path of 1980s Soviet self-destruction — which is exactly what the “sanctions as grand strategy” approach was meant to accomplish.