What is the end game driving US sanctions?

Foreign policy under Washington's Republicans could instigate a series of socioeconomic collapses across the Middle East

Demonstrators burn representations of the U.S. flag during a pro-government rally denouncing last week’s violent protests over a fuel price hike, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
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Last week, a group of conservative Republican members of the US House of Representatives released a report on the country's foreign policy, replete with recommendations. In the section on the Middle East, for the first time proposals were presented to sanction countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, neither of which is an enemy of the US, as part of a campaign to contain Iran regionally.

The report, prepared by members of the Republican Study Commission (RSC), still faces obstacles before becoming policy. Republicans are a minority in the House, and therefore have a limited ability to transform their recommendations into legislation, particularly in a polarised election year. There is also resistance from within the Trump administration to a certain number of the proposals.

However, it is also notable that the recommendations made it this far into an official Republican document. Even if they are not implemented now, they are a guidepost for what conservative Republicans may push for in the future. To understand precisely what is happening, one has to go back to the Obama years.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 29, 2019, former US President Barack Obama speaks during the "Bits & Pretzels" start-ups and founder congress in Munich, Germany.  Obama has launched a scathing attack on Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it an "absolute chaotic disaster." In a leaked web call may 8, 2020 with former members of his administration, Obama also said the Justice Department's decision to drop charges against Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia probe, endangers the rule of law in the US. / AFP / Christof STACHE
Former US President Barack Obama was a key architect behind the international nuclear deal with Iran known as the JCPOA. AFP

The conservative critique of former US president Barack Obama is that he sought to use the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the international nuclear deal with Iran – as a means of recognising Tehran’s stake in the region. For Mr Obama, if a modus vivendi could be established between the major states of the Middle East, this would create the stability needed to allow the United States to withdraw from the region.

Mr Obama made his intentions clear in the much-publicised interview he gave to the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in April 2016. The president declared: "The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians – which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen – requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace."

The Israelis quickly sensed that the US president was realigning his country’s approach to the Middle East in a radical way. By recognising Iran’s interests as legitimate, by using the nuclear deal as a mechanism that would encourage Iran to define a new regional role for itself, Mr Obama was saying – without saying it – that Israel and its security were no longer a primary concern in Washington.

Worse, from the Israeli perspective, the JCPOA only shuttered Iran’s nuclear programme for a specific period of time. After that, Tehran would be able to resume enrichment of uranium and, ultimately, build nuclear weapons with the money that would come with economic normalisation. This would also end Israel’s monopoly over nuclear arms in the Middle East.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Barker (R) shakes hands with Iraqi General Mohammed Fadel (C), wearing face mask and gloves, following the outbreak of coronvavirus disease (COVID-19), during the hand over of Qayyarah Airfield West from US-led coalition forces to Iraqi Security Forces, in the south of Mosul, Iraq March 26, 2020.    REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani/File Photo. To match Special Report IRAQ-IRAN/MOSUL
The RSC recommends that the US sanction Iraq, one of its formal allies in the fight against extremist terror in the Middle East. Reuters 

From that moment on, Israel and its allies in Washington were focused on two things: pushing for a US withdrawal from JCPOA, and widening American actions against Iran’s allies – principally in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen – so as to break the Islamic Republic’s regional networks. In that way, even if a Democratic administration returned to office, it would find it almost impossible to revive Mr Obama’s policy.

As one reads the sections on the Middle East in the RSC report, it would be fair to suspect that they were written by think tankers helping to drive the Israeli effort to overturn the JCPOA and target countries perceived as being controlled by Iran. Some of these individuals are even quoted by name.

That Israel’s interpretation of regional events has such high standing in Donald Trump’s Washington is why the RSC report must be taken seriously. After all, foes of the JCPOA managed to persuade Mr Trump to drop the nuclear deal. Yet even Democrats opposed to the president could, potentially, rally to efforts aimed at containing Iran’s proxies. The threat posed to Israel by Hezbollah’s missiles is not something over which Republicans and Democrats are likely to disagree.

If the sanctions recommended are not implemented now, they are a guidepost for what Republicans may push for in the future

There is another question, however, that involves the Israeli endgame in all of this. If US sanctions continue to be tightened on a broad range of countries in the region, most of which are already highly vulnerable, it is conceivable that the outcome could be a series of collapsing social and economic orders, which would lead to much wider regional instability. Is that Israel’s objective?

Lebanon is a good example. The RSC report asks that no US taxpayer money go to financing an International Monetary Fund bailout of the country. If such aid were denied, it would represent the country’s death warrant, as Lebanon is highly dependent on imports for its food, fuel and medicine. Without hard currency to finance such imports, the country would be impoverished and could dissolve into chaos, with the repercussions having a dangerous impact on the region.

Conspiracy theorists argue that Israel would welcome a balkanised Middle East that embroils Iran and its proxies in a myriad of small wars while the Israelis reinforce themselves and annex territory in the West Bank. For now, one can only speculate about Israel’s intentions, but it’s an indication of where the region is today that not many people would readily dismiss such a scenario.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut