The Trump administration is planning yet more sanctions on Iran in its last ten weeks in office, largely aimed at constraining the incoming Biden administration and complicating the chances of a successful engagement between Washington and Tehran.
The "flood" of sanctions, first reported by Axios, is at the centre of Elliott Abrams' trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week. The US Envoy on Iran and Venezuela arrived in Israel on Sunday and will visit Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
The administration is planning a package of sanctions against Iran before it leaves office on January 20, and would target what the US sees as its illicit activities outside the nuclear programme.
US and diplomatic sources have told The National that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be visiting the region next week. He is tentatively planning to visit France, Turkey, Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia between November 13 and 20. Politico was first to report on the visit.
The imposition of more sanctions on Iran and its regional proxies is designed to up the pressure on Iran and complicate the Biden administration to return to the 2015 nuclear deal that US President Donald Trump abandoned. A US state department official was not available to comment on such a strategy or Mr Pompeo’s coming travel.
Richard Goldberg, an adviser to the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, saw a new set of sanctions obstructing a Biden sanctions-relief package to Iran.
"There are a large number of entities and institutions in Iran that are tied to the IRGC, terrorism and missile proliferation that are not currently designated for those reasons," Mr Goldberg, a former White House official in the Trump administration where he worked on Iran, told The National.
By imposing sanctions outside the nuclear programme and targeting Iran under terror financing, ballistic missiles and human rights violations, evidence on change of behaviour in these particular areas would be required to roll them back, Mr Goldberg argued.
To name one example, “Mr Biden will have to face the American people and explain why he wants to give sanctions relief to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) without Iran ceasing its terror activities,” he said.
The sanctions, while not related to the nuclear programme, would also complicate granting relief on measures related to it, because some of the same entities would be targeted for different reasons.
“Since Iran's oil sector and central bank are subject to terror sanctions, oil and banking sanctions relief should be off the table in any negotiation with Iran that focuses only on its nuclear activities,” Mr Goldberg said.
But Brian O’Toole, a fellow at The Atlantic Council and a former Treasury official, saw the effort by the Trump administration as highly politicised and one that could backfire.
“The bar was already there with the IRGC and CBI [Central Bank of Iran] terrorism labels. This kind of blatant politicisation might make it easier to remove sanctions since the motivations are political and not as strictly on the threat. It may end up counterproductive,” Mr O’Toole tweeted.
Mr O'Toole told The National that the politicisation in timing and targeting of the forthcoming sanctions, makes it easier for the Biden administration to repeal either by an executive order or through the bureaucratic process.
“If the Trump team was going solely on evidence of Iran’s malign behaviour, it would make repealing the sanctions difficult. But by making clear the move is political, it undermines whatever evidence they do have and makes it easier to trade [and repeal] in a political deal,” he said.
The Biden team has prioritised Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal signed in 2015 before any return to the agreement that the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018. But with Iran seeking sanctions relief as a condition for engaging with the US, these potential measures could curtail such effort even temporarily.