Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Sanctions lifted despite Iran’s provocations

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On Saturday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that Iran had complied with the July nuclear agrement. This led US and European officials to announce that the Iran deal was officially implemented and that nuclear sanctions on Iran had been removed. The deal is aimed at stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons for at least ten years in exchange for sanctions relief.

Now that the deal has been implemented, Iran will have access to around US$100 billion in relation to assets that were frozen overseas, as well as benefits from new oil, trade and financial opportunities. Many are concerned that Iran could use these funds to further destabilise the region, as it supports the brutal Assad regime in Syria, funds terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and fights a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen by backing the Houthis. There are also concerns that the inspections regime is not rigorous enough, and that internal politics in Iran - with ultimate power still resting with the Supreme leader and his revolutionary guards - could undermine the deal.

The removal of sanctions came despite a number of criticisms of the IAEA's December report on Iran's progress in complying with the deal, as well as recent provocations by Iran. Such provocations include the test-firiing of ballistic missile in violation of a UN Security Council resolution; the Iranian navy rocket fired near a US warship in the Strait of Hormuz, and, last week, Iran's humiliation of the US by broadcasting on Iranian television around two dozen photos and five videos of ten detained US sailors and their two boats after they allegedly crossed into Iranian waters apparently due to a navigational error. The US sailors were shown on their knees with their hands on their heads, and there was a video of a US naval officer apologising to Iran. The broadcast was clearly designed to be used for Iran's propaganda purposes to humiliate the US, and as such, may have even breached articles 13 and 17 of the Geneva Convention, which prohibit using prisoners for such purposes.

In response to Iran's ballistic missile tests, on Sunday the US Treasury Department said it was imposing penalties against a network of six companies based in the UAE and China, as well as five Iranian individuals, who had helped provide secret materials to Iran to develop its ballistic missile program.

Regarding the capture of the sailors, the US Administration was so keen to keep the Iran nuclear deal on track that it appeared to downplay the incident. The captives were not mentioned in US President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, instead Obama noted the Iran nuclear deal as a legacy achievement, and US Secretary John Kerry has since thanked Iran for its treatment of and release of the sailors, claiming that the thaw in relations between the US and Iran contributed to this positive outcome.

However, Republicans have argued that the US sailors should never have been detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and view it as another example of a belligerent Iran encouraged by a softer US position towards Teheran. Republican Senator John McCain, a former Vietnam War prisoner who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "This is really another embarrassing moment and a great propaganda victory for the Iranians."

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is seeking the Republican nomination for President, also expressed outrage: "They took pictures of them and video and put it up on Iranian television as to say, 'Look at what we can do to America. We can capture their sailors and we can make them get on their knees, we can humiliate them,". Rubio added, "Do you know why they did this? Because they know they can get away with it. Because they know Barack Obama is weak."

Meanwhile, the capture of the sailors may provide an insight into internal Iranian politics, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards seeking to reassert its power. As Stephen Collinson writes for CNN:

"Political tensions are acute in the run-up to crucial elections next month for the country's parliament, the Majlis, and a powerful body called the Assembly of Experts that has the power to appoint the Supreme leader. The IRGC has been much more critical of the nuclear deal than the political leadership, and some see this incident as an effort to assert their authority.
A desire to avoid embarrassing Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani and to provide ammunition to hardline opponents of the nuclear deal may be one reason why the U.S. administration has yet to impose promised sanctions over the missile tests...
Under this interpretation of the events in the Persian Gulf, the IRGC made their point at a critical moment before Obama's State of the Union and had no need to overplay their hand by keeping the sailors. And steeped in Iranian business dealings, they personally have much to gain by the easing of sanctions to take place if the nuclear deal's implementation goes ahead as planned."


Sanctions expert Mark Dubowitz appears to agree, saying:

"What happened with the sailors, to me, is an indication that the Revolutionary Guards are sending a message to Obama and to Rouhani that they are in charge," Adding, "The deal may have been negotiated with Rouhani and Zarif, but it will be the Revolutionary Guards who will dictate the terms and dictate the implementation."

These internal divisions in Iran remain critical to watch. Now that the nuclear deal has been implemented, the international community must ensure that Iran allows for vigorous inspections of its nuclear facilities, that any Iranian violations are met with a swift and appropriate response, and that provocations, terrorism-promotion and efforts to destablise neighbouring states by the IRGC and its allies are met with effective responses.

Sharyn Mittelman


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