Iran entered the new year with protests that dominated headlines, filling the vacuum in the western media left by the holidays. It seems to have caught people by surprise that Iranians were protesting with rigor and prevalence that was certainly missing during the 2009 Green Movement. Chants of “Let go of Syria, think about us” and “I give my life for Iran, not Gaza, not Lebanon” were probably music to the ears of Iran’s foes in the region, who perceive Tehran as an existential threat either to their ideology or existence. Mainly this refers to Saudi, the UAE and Israel, which are currently engaged in an inscrutable triangle, whose results, such as Gulf Crisis, are as unsettling as this relationship.
Across the Atlantic, a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the belligerence of Trump and his administration towards Iran is obvious to anyone who has been following American foreign policy. As such, expectedly Iran found itself a premium spot in Trump’s tweets over the holidays along with Democrats, “fake media” and North Korea.
Trump’s flagrant tweets about Iran were anticipated given his nature of using the social media platform, but the call for an urgent Security Council meeting was extraordinary. On 2 January, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called for emergency meetings in the Security Council and the UN Human Rights Commission, claiming that “the freedoms that are enshrined in the United Nations charter are under attack in Iran”. The Iranian protests became violent very quickly, leaving 23 dead and over 1,000 people detained in less than a week. This situation presents a serious question about the handling of the crisis by the government, suggesting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s acknowledgement of the people’s right to protest was rhetoric not policy. However, is it the regular practice of the Security Council to be called into work this quickly in the circumstances of national protests? The precedence does not answer this question favourably. It brings to mind that there is more here than the need for an evaluation of the protests, namely the favourite foreign policy tool of Europe and North America since the 1990s: Sanctions.
With the Iranian protests just freshly off the streets and being replaced by pro-government gatherings it is time for an accurate evaluation of the causes, which should be the work of experts in Iranian domestic policy. However, it can be noted that the protests seem to have sprung from real financial concerns over unemployment, inflation and purchasing power. The causes seem organic to the society and foreign actors triggering the protests do not seem to be a plausible argument, given the demographics of the protestors and prevalence of the protests.
Rouhani might have exaggerated how much and how quickly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), namely the Iran nuclear deal, would trickle down to the ordinary citizens, or the regime soaked the benefits of the deal to finance its domestic and international agenda before it could trickle down to the people of Iran. Still with the Mossaddeqh coup in its history, where American involvement was declassified only recently under the Obama administration, and facing clear international animosity, Iran could suspect foreign influence. However, blaming the protests on foreign agents and discarding the protestors’ legitimate concerns shows the regime’s lack of steadfastness in responding to criticism. On the other hand, it is also dubious when foreign agents’ involvement is underplayed. As all agents placed in foreign lands, it would be expected that they would be making the most of the protests in Iran. It is curious that all pretend foreign agents do not exist, and every attempt to point at their presence is disregarded as a bogus claim. One thing that was clear is Trump’s unconditional and quick support for the protesters were more to their discredit than to their aid.
The world is yet to see where the protests will lead to in Iranian politics, but the Trump administration seems to be keen to act on the issue with the UN. It is no secret that the US plans to reinstate sanctions against Iran. However, the US’ passed experience showed that when sanctions were unilaterally enforcement, Iran could circumvent them. It is important to note that according to international law, unilateral US sanctions only concern American persons and institutions, and if the dollar is not used in transactions, the US does not have a case against people and institutions for continuing transaction with Iran. During past sanctions, Iran continued some of its transactions via the Turkish bank, Halk Bank, whose deputy manager had to face a trial in the US. The case almost became a parody of the American justice system, where stolen documents were presented and accepted as evidence although the nature of their acquisition was confessed in trial.
Raza Zarrab, the liaison between the Turkish bank and Iranians, was the main defendant but turned into the main witness. The current main defendant, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy manager at Halk Bank, was arrested on his way out of the US. Interestingly he was taken into custody not upon his entrance but on his exit, suggesting he was made a part of the case upon knowledge of his presence in the US. He was left in a position where he does not have much to defend himself against as Zarrab, the main witness, lays no claims against him and his role in the bank’s affairs were limited. As of 3 January, the American jury found him guilty of five accounts of fraud and conspiracy.
A US court accepted stolen documents as evidence, and the very person derailing sanctions became the witness while the only defendant was a deputy who does not seem to have the alleged authority over Halk Bank’s affairs. All of these unorthodox court proceedings fortify the claims that this was a showcase trial for broadcasting to the world the consequences of bypassing American sanctions. It is clear that even if the sanctions are unilateral in a legal sense, the US expects “allies” to abide by them.
When charged with bank fraud on mortgage cases, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse put in place expensive checks which were deemed sufficient punishment, but for Halk Bank a sensational court case and charges that can add up more than 90 years were necessary. If all this sounds like the US’ new foreign policy tool is to bully the international community, there is no need to be surprised. Nikki Haley has been doing it openly almost in all her speeches recently. The Emergency Special General Assembly session on the issue of Jerusalem became very dramatic as she threatened the member nations with future aid and political support, adding the US will be “watching” how they vote. Long live sovereignty and independent member states at the United Nations.
It seems like the new task for Haley is finding allies or if necessary bullying members to support US efforts and sanctions against Iran under the UN umbrella. The other US institutions, like the Treasury and Department of Justice, made the punishment clear for not complying with sanctions even though on paper they only concern the American people and institutions. However, still the UN would ensure more effectiveness as it would bring multilateralism into their plans. The Iranian deal is still important to the EU, so there is not much hope of France accepting sanctions at the Security Council, not to mention China and Russia. Of course, sanctions could come under different pretenses like human rights violations.
If the Security Council does not provide the solution, there is always the General Assembly (GA) countries that could be pushed again to pass resolutions. Even if by nature, a GA resolution would not be binding as a Security Council resolution would be, it would still give the US one more paperwork to use in pushing for sanctions or other enforcements or for punishing their negligence thereof. It seems like this time the US will find a way to bring multilateralism into its action of sanctions and efforts against Iran.
Be it the American institutions, such as the Justice Department, diplomatic tools, like the UN or populist tools like Twitter, all are mobilised for the new American foreign policy tool: public bullying. Trump’s tweets and Nikki Haley are invariable parts of this scheme. When Raza Zarrab added to this mix, this becomes an example of how the bullying efforts materialise in particular cases. For Iran, sanctions are coming and the US has shown the world what the punishment will be for aiding Iran and it also showed that multilateral efforts are imminent.
This article was first published by Middle East Monitor