Iranian sanctions on the US are a diversion

Washington must not fall for a superficial gesture that masks a more complex strategy

A soldier walks past an Iranian ballistic missile. AP
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The post-1979 Iran-US rivalry has always been a home for spectacle. In the tumult following the deposition of the shah – the country's former ruler – demonstrators stormed America's embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage for more than a year. They were routinely paraded in front of press cameras. To this day, visitors to the compound can see part of the wreckage of a US helicopter that crashed outside the capital during an attempted rescue. Another, much-publicised storming of Britain's embassy took place in 2011.

A less heavy-handed effort at attention grabbing came on Saturday, when Tehran announced plans to put 52 senior American officials and politicians under its own sanctions regime, in response to the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani in 2020. Suleimani was killed by a US drone strike while visiting Iraq. Washington has warned of “severe consequences” if Iran in any way acts against its citizens.

Concern is justified, but the sanctions are unlikely to cause the Americans targeted much hardship. None of those on the list appear to have any Iranian holdings. Former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley shrugged off her inclusion by tweeting sarcastically “looks like I’ll have to cancel my relaxing getaway to Iran”.

There is, however, a tried-and-tested strategy behind the symbolism, all the more obvious as negotiations for a new Iran nuclear deal enter a critical phase in Vienna. On Sunday, the day after Tehran's claim that it would sanction the US, its most consequential opposing party in the talks, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in an interview that parties are close to a "good deal".

What appears to be a contradictory approach is anything but. It allows Tehran to appear both assertive and amenable at the same time, while also playing to domestic conservatives who remain sceptical of any nuclear deal.

And while the theatrics of Iran’s sanctions may raise a few eyebrows, they pale in comparison to Tehran’s far more consequential activities in the region, be they the country's ballistic missile programme or its sponsoring of violent proxies. The same day as Mr Amirabdollahian’s interview, a UN report claimed that Iran has sent thousands of weapons seized in the Arabian Sea to Yemen, where it backs the Houthi rebel group responsible for prolonging the country's civil war. Unsurprisingly, these policies are not announced loudly on the international stage, but rather obfuscated or flatly denied.

Negotiators in Vienna should keep in mind simple priorities. Ensuring the Middle East's specific regional security, which was not sufficiently included in the previous 2015 deal, is a critical one. The prospect of Iran making a nuclear weapon may no longer be a matter of as much urgency for western nations as it once was, but as has been demonstrated repeatedly, an unstable Middle East also leads to a more unstable world.

Speaking after Iran’s sanctions announcement, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Sunday: "As Americans, we have our disagreements on politics. We have our disagreements on Iran policy. But we are united in our resolve against threats and provocations.” Of course, solidarity and consensus on the threat posed by Iran is what America's longstanding allies in the Middle East have been calling for since 2015. In 2022, they must be heard.

Published: January 11, 2022, 3:00 AM