The renewed raft of sanctions on Iran is intended to intensify internal and external pressure on Tehran to change its destabilizing ways, but there is still more that can be done to augment the impact, writes David B. Rivkin Jr.


The Trump administration has re-imposed a broad range of “secondary” sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran. They reflect the administration’s determination to hold Tehran accountable for its aggressive and destabilizing behavior in the region (including its actions in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq), as well as its longstanding support for global terrorism, organized criminal activity, and continued nuclear aspirations. Indeed, Iran’s malign activities extend beyond the Middle East and include its support for radical anti-American regimes in Latin America and Latin American organized crime and terrorist networks.

These sanctions are primarily focused on Iran’s financial, shipping and energy sectors. They are “secondary” in that they affect non-US persons and entities, who must now clearly choose between doing business with Iran or with the United States. Application of these additional sanctions — which had been lifted as part of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action) nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran — are certain to further depress Tehran’s struggling economy. They are designed to intensify both internal and external pressures on the Iranian government to fundamentally change its reckless, aberrant behavior.

There are, however, several ways that these sanctions can be made even more debilitating. For example, the just-reinstated sanctions blacklist certain, designated Iranian financial institutions, effectively cutting them off from access to the global banking transactions clearance system, SWIFT. However, given the fact that the government in Tehran controls, directly or indirectly, all of the Iranian financial institutions, it would make sense to broaden the sanctions to include the totality of financial institutions, both state-owned and private. This approach has been advocated by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), and should be quickly embraced by the Trump administration.

“The overarching goal would be to ensure vessels participating in the Iranian trade cannot ever participate in other global maritime traffic.”

In addition, shipping-related sanctions also are a critical component of the administration’s efforts to improve Iranian behavior. Although these sanctions are already quite formidable, in particular cutting off major international shipping concerns from carrying Iranian oil, they can be augmented so as to cover most or all of the vessels carrying trade plying Iranian waters. The overarching goal would be to ensure vessels participating in the Iranian trade cannot ever participate in other global maritime traffic.

Khamenei speaks during a government meeting in Iran’s capital, Tehran, while a portrait of Iran’s late spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini hangs behind him (Handout/Khameinei.IR/AFP)

Iran’s regional misbehavior is also greatly aided by its allied terrorist organizations, particularly Hezbollah. Indeed, without the support of Hezbollah, Tehran would not have been able to project its power into Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq and would have been greatly constrained in the conduct of its military operations. Iran’s dependence on Hezbollah manpower and other assets is only going to increase as its economy worsens, domestic unrest intensifies, and the regime’s corresponding ability to absorb casualties declines.

Yet, current anti-Hezbollah sanctions are relatively modest, largely because of the fallacious belief that comprehensive sanctions against that group would destabilize Lebanon. Accordingly, there is an urgent need for the imposition of comprehensive financial sanctions against Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies, such as Amal Movement and local Sunni and Christian supporters. Appropriate measures can be taken to protect the Lebanese financial sector and facilitate the processing of legitimate transactions. The overarching goal here would be both to weaken Hezbollah and to dramatically drive up Tehran’s transaction costs in continuing to support Hezbollah.

“The overarching goal here would be both to weaken Hezbollah and to dramatically drive up Tehran’s transaction costs in continuing to support that group”

Additionally, the Trump administration should consider innovative sanctions enforcement methods, such as partnering with the private sector by paying bounties to parties who turn in sanctions violators, and also permitting private suits to prosecute violators. The goal would be to augment the inherently limited government resources dedicated to sanctions enforcement and enhance compliance levels.

Finally, key US regional allies—Israel, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan, and so forth — should move to impose Iran and Hezbollah-focused secondary sanctions of their own. In addition, efforts should be made to end the sanctions “busting” activities of Dubai and Oman.

Such additional sanctions would bolster the efficacy of US sanctions, have the salutary effect of internationalizing the anti-Iran campaign, and would be particularly efficacious against companies that do not engage in sufficient activities in the United States to make the enforcement of US sanctions against them a credible threat. Such an additional program, especially if backed up by intelligence sharing and joint enforcement operations, also has the potential of greatly constraining Iran-related business transactions by Indian, Russian and Chinese companies. The latter two countries have, of course, long connived at sanctions violations, both at the governmental level and (in Russia’s case) through its own criminal networks.

The most recent US sanctions are an excellent start. But they can be made even more effective and successful in curbing Tehran’s misconduct and reducing its threat to global and regional peace and stability.

David B. Rivkin Jr. practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush.