Sanctions relief and Iran’s regional ambitions

May 14, 2015

Sanctions relief and Iran's regional ambitions

Update from AIJAC

May 14, 2015
Number 05/15 #04

In what seems a major breach of the sanctions on Iran, Mahan Airlines, which is associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, has reportedly received nine commercial airliners, via an Iraqi front company. (A good comment on what this says about the state of the sanctions comes from Jonathan Tobin.) Meanwhile, two heads of state from the Gulf Cooperation Council are apparently boycotting a summit called by US President Obama because they perceive that the US is not willing to do enough to counter Iranian regional aggression. This Update deals with both aspects of the road to an Iranian nuclear deal – the state and future of sanctions, and the likely effect of such a deal on Iran’s regional efforts to subvert neighbouring states and sponsor terror groups. 

We lead with a discussion by a number of experts about recent US Administration efforts to explain how sanctions will function in the event of a deal – and to answer critics who allege that sanctions relief will be used by Iran to intensify regional misbehavior. A variety of experts interviewed by Bloomberg magazine for this piece evince strong doubts about both claims that the Administration can “snapback” sanctions if Iran is caught cheating, and assertions that Iran will use any money it gets from sanctions relief solely to bolster its domestic economy. Among those consulted are Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute, Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defence of Democracy, and noted academic Elliot Cohen. For their arguments about Administration claims, CLICK HERE.

Next up is American-Iranian specialist Majid Rafizadeh, who takes it upon himself to challenge the apparent US Administration assumption that Iran will moderate its regional behaviour in the wake of a nuclear deal. He argues that this ignores the ideological principles which underlie Iranian foreign policy – principles which demand continued regional hegemonic ambitions. The US policy, Rafizadeh argues, will actually “assist Iranian leaders and senior officials of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be more emboldened in extending their geopolitical and military influence in the Middle East.” For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Also making the case that the deal will give the Iranians billions to use for terror and regional subversion are Morton Klein and Daniel Mandel. Plus, more on how the US policy of focusing on the nuclear deal empowers Iran regionally from Lee Smith. 

The final piece is from veteran Middle East mediator Dennis Ross, who addresses the US’ difficulty in convincing Gulf states that “a potential deal on the Iranian nuclear program will lead us neither to forsake our ties to them nor permit Iran, flush with new resources because of sanctions relief, to threaten them without an American response.” Ross says neither American assurances that it will back them against an external invasion, nor an increased military presence in the region will do much to reassure them. He proposes that instead the US will need “actions at this juncture that show we will compete with the Iranians and raise the costs of their aggressive behavior” and proposes specifically the establishment of a buffer zone along the Turkish- Syrian border – which he argues would have humanitarian benefits and provide a base for more secular anti-Assad forces in the Syrian civil war to build their capabilities, as well as other positive effects. For Ross’ full argument – including noting that Iran is certainly not restraining its regional behaviour to gain a nuclear deal, so it makes little sense for the US to restrain its responses – CLICK HERE. More on the lack of restraint in its behaviour currently being shown by Teheran comes from former senior US official Elliott Abrams.

Readers may also be interested in:


Obama’s New Answers on Iran Fall Flat

Top Obama administration officials have released new details about how they would lift most sanctions against Iran. Those are unnerving some experts, who doubt the administration’s claims about the sanctions will hold up.

In speeches last week to a conference at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Vice President Joe Biden revealed new details about the end of most sanctions against Iran if a nuclear deal is reached. The officials also claimed that most of the sanctions, including multilateral sanctions, could be snapped back into place if Iran cheated, and they argued that giving Iran tens of billions of dollars in cash won’t dramatically increase Iran’s spending on terrorism and other nefarious activities.

Lew spoke to a private meeting of Washington Institute members last Wednesday, after which Treasury posted his remarks. He said that President Obama planned to use his own authority to suspend sanctions against Iran’s oil, banking and trade sectors after Iran complied with the initial parts of the deal and that Congress wouldn’t actually be asked to lift sanctions during his presidency.

“Only after many years of compliance would we ask Congress to vote to terminate sanctions, and only Congress can terminate legislative sanctions,” he said.

Lew said this suspension, rather than a legislative repeal of sanctions, would allow the administration to quickly reinstate U.S. sanctions if Iran is caught cheating. He also said that United Nations sanctions would be able to snap back easily and no single nation would be able to stop that.

“We have made it abundantly clear that if Iran breaks its commitment, it will face once again the full force of the multilateral sanctions regime,” he said. “The snapback would not be vulnerable to a veto by an individual P5 member, including China and Russia.”

That explanation directly conflicts with what Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told an audience at New York University earlier that day. Zarif said that UN sanctions would be lifted within days of an agreement being signed and that all sanctions would be permanently lifted, including Congressional sanctions, once Iran met its initial obligations.

Treasury officials told me that Lew’s statements were in line with previous administration explanations about how sanctions would be suspended and potentially put back into place later. But the Washington Institute’s Matt Levitt, a former Treasury official who moderated the April 29 event with Lew, said that once sanctions are suspended, especially the multilateral sanctions, there’s no easy way to put them back into place.

“No one should be fooled into thinking there will be any automaticity here,” he said. “If we thought Iran was cheating, the debate then moves to whether there was in fact a violation. You can see a situation where Russia and China will dispute whether there is in fact a violation.”

Levitt and other experts also noted that Lew said the sanctions on one specific part of the Iranian regime, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, will stay in place. Treasury considers it linked to terrorism.

Lew didn’t say anything about the rest of the Revolutionary Guard, which is sanctioned for both proliferation and human rights violations and controls as much of a third of the Iranian economy through shell companies in mining, banking and oil. It stands accused of directing huge amounts of illicit activity around the region.

“Lew is signaling that the administration is planning on delisting IRCG banks, energy companies and shipping companies, and perhaps the entire IRGC,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Hagar Chemali, a Treasury spokeswoman, told me Lew was not stating directly that the entire IRGC would be free from sanctions if a nuclear deal were signed.

“As we have stated numerous times, sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights and other destabilizing behavior will remain in force,” she said. “It would be a mistake to pre-judge any other potential future actions.”

Several experts said that in order for Iran to receive the sanctions relief it seeks as part of a deal, most if not all of the IRGC sanctions would have to go. That could allow for a huge expansion of the group’s influence and activities.

“Isolating the Quds force from the rest of the IRGC ignores the fact that there is a vast IRGC infrastructure that has been involved in human rights violations, proliferation, and terrorism,” said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  “It leaves the IRGC with a great deal of room to maneuver.”

The exact amount of money Iran would receive after a deal is signed is also in dispute, but Lew said not to worry about that either: Iran has between $100 billion and $140 billion of oil revenue frozen in foreign banks. $30 billion to $50 billion could be released to Iran right after signing a deal, according to Congressional officials who have been briefed on the negotiations. But Lew said Iran was likely to spend that cash on domestic needs and not on terrorism or support for violence.

“President Rouhani was elected on a platform of economic revitalization, and Iranians are demanding proof that engagement with the international community will produce tangible economic benefits,” Lew said. “As a result, Iran is expected to use new revenues chiefly to address those needs, including by shoring up its budget, building infrastructure, maintaining the stability of the rial, and attracting imports.”

Lew also said that Iran has lost so much money to the sanctions, it would take the Iranian government years to recoup those losses. Levitt disagreed and said that the Iranian economy doesn’t have to recoup losses like a business would.

“It’s a cute argument, but it misses the point,” said Levitt. “I don’t think the argument is going to sway people in the region, particularly the Gulf states, who are very worried about the near-term release of significant amounts of money that will empower Iran to do all sorts of things.”

Dubowitz sees the same risk: “When you give bad people bad money, they use it for bad things.”

Biden, in his April 30 speech at the Washington Institute, made a more emotional argument for the deal, praising the administration’s work to build up sanctions against Iran and the progress of the negotiations so far.

“It’s true that Iran could try to cheat, whether there’s a deal or not,” he said. “Now they didn’t cheat under the interim deal — the Joint Plan of Action — as many were certain they would.”

That record of good behavior is debatable. Iran stands accused of violating the interim deal in a number of ways and also reportedly violated other parts of the existing sanctions regime, including by expanding an illicit nuclear procurement network that operates through two blacklisted firms.

Under the deal being discussed, Biden said, Iran would allow inspectors to visit “not only declared nuclear facilities, but undeclared sites where suspicious, clandestine work is suspected.” He said the the international community would have “the ability to challenge suspect locations.”

Experts following the talks say the Iranians have ruled out any access to military sites, which makes Biden’s pitch a little weak.

“Having the ability to ‘challenge’ suspect sites is not the same thing as getting access to them, which is the key thing,” particularly when the Iranians have taken military installations off the table, said Eliot Cohen, who served as State Department Counselor during the George W. Bush administration.

The speeches by Lew and Biden constituted the administration’s most assertive effort to date to detail their thinking about how sanctions will be lifted. The two officials seemed to be eager to get ahead of any and all the criticisms they are anticipating. But they did not. Unless the nuclear talks shift significantly before the June 30 deadline, the administration will continue to face questions it can’t answer.

Back to Top

Why Obama is wrong on Iran

Majid Rafizadeh


President Obama has put all of his eggs in one basket, concentrating on Iran’s nuclear file and spending a considerable amount of political capital on this issue in the past two years.

His main view of the Islamic Republic can be primarily characterized as one-dimensional- that is analyzing Iran from solely the prism of its nuclear program. On the other hand, Iranian leaders have a more multi-faceted, subtle, complicated multi-dimensional view of their role in the Middle East and of their relationship with the U.S. and the West.

Obama’s key reasons behind his one-sided perspective are obvious. First and foremost, he would like to leave a historic record and lifetime legacy of being the first American president who reached a nuclear deal with longtime foe, the Islamic Republic. This is similar to the historic Nixon China agreement and Nixon-Mao handshake, which began a new period of Chinese-American relations.

But, President Obama is wrong on Iran from various landscapes.

Crucial issues that Obama is ignoring

While the nuclear threat of Iran is a serious matter for regional stability, nevertheless, spending too much political capital on Iran’s nuclear file and ignoring other threats imposed by Iran’s military will neither completely contain the Iranian nuclear threat, nor moderate Iran’s expansionist foreign policies in the region.

On the contrary, as the latest developments in the Middle East have revealed, viewing Tehran only from the prism of nuclear proliferation will assist Iranian leaders and senior officials of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be more emboldened in extending their geopolitical and military influence in the Middle East.

Currently, Iranian leaders are attempting to push for an agenda that claims the world view of Tehran from the prism of nuclear negotiations rather than of its regional policies. This strategy falls right into the interest of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s army establishments.

In order to achieve the aforementioned primary objective, while removing the pressure and concerns from other countries and allies, President Obama’s second argument appears to be that a focus on Iran’s nuclear file will open avenues to address and negotiate other crucial matters with the Iranian leaders which are linked to Middle Eastern geopolitics, the economy, American national interests and strategic landscapes.

Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East is complex

Notwithstanding, the other issue that President Obama has failed to recognize is that even if a nuclear deal is reached, the Islamic Republic’s regional hegemonic ambitions will not fundamentally be altered partially due to the ideological tenet of Iran’s foreign policy.

While many nation-states’ foreign policies operate on the three crucial realms of geopolitical, economic, and national interests, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, the supreme leader and the IRGC cadres’ major objectives hold a fourth critical and indispensable landscape: ideological principles and ideals.

Over the last three decades, the Islamic Republic has cemented and ossified its complicated role in the region through its main foreign policy pillar: the ideological, sectarian, and revolutionary ideals.

For example, Iran’s support for the ruling Shiite coalition in Iraq, its backing of Hezbollah, the Syrian government, and the Houthis in Yemen, along with Tehran’s recruitment of foreign Shiite fighters to fight in Syria or other countries, are not solely for geopolitical or strategic reasons.

These intricate alliance are entrenched in Islamic revolutionary ideals and values, such as promoting Shiism (the fundamental core of the Islamic Republic), opposing the Great Satan, and extending the Persian influence in the Middle East.

As long as these ideological ideals, principles, the concept of a supreme leader, Velayat-e-Faqih, and the underlying political establishment of the Islamic Republic exist, Tehran will not simply remove the ideological principle from its foreign policy objectives.

President Obama, and many others who believe resolving Iran’s nuclear threat will alter the Islamic Republic’s expansionist policies, view Iran through the prisms of geopolitical, economic, and national interests. As a result, they argue that if Iran is offered economic incentives (such as removal of the UNSC sanctions), Iranian leaders will moderate their regional policies and new venues will be found to make diplomatic headway with Tehran.

In other words, they believe an Iran without sanctions will definitely change its behavior for the better and act more rationally. Nevertheless, the economic incentives offered to the Islamic Republic will most likely be utilized to extend Tehran’s regional hegemonic ambitions.

In closing, as long as one crucial pillar of Iran’s foreign policy remains to be ideological, Iranian leaders will not change their regional ambitions, sectarian agenda, revolutionary principles, or be less assertive in extending their military influence in the region.

Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship.


Back to Top

Get Serious About a Buffer Zone in Syria

Dennis Ross

U.S. News & World Report, May 8, 2015

Obama needs to show that he’s willing to shift the Middle East balance of power against Iran.

President Barack Obama’s meeting with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David next week is likely to be a pivot point in the region. If not satisfied, several of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will increasingly act independently of U.S. wishes given their belief that they must do more to counter the Iranians; already we are seeing this in Syria and Yemen.

If the president hopes to blunt this trend, he will have to reassure the leaders of these states that a potential deal on the Iranian nuclear program will lead us neither to forsake our ties to them nor permit Iran, flush with new resources because of sanctions relief, to threaten them without an American response. It will not be an easy sell.

Unlike the Israelis who focus on the nuclear issue and see any deal that allows Iran to be a nuclear threshold state as a profound strategic danger, the Gulf Arab states are far more preoccupied with Iran’s meddling in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. For them, an Iran not squeezed financially will be freer to do even more on the ground with its Shiite proxy militias to shift the balance of power further in its favor. Listen to Arab commentary in the region, and a persistent theme is the Iranians are now the dominant influence in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. It does not help that Iranian officials emphasize their newfound power in these capitals, or that Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Forces, is no longer a shadowy figure but now appears prominently with Shiite militias, often on YouTube, in Tikrit and Baghdad. Indeed, the Islamic State group may be our priority, but for the Saudis, it’s Iran.

So Obama will have his work cut out for him at Camp David. His Arab counterparts will expect concrete commitments designed to address their concerns. True, they will expect promises of new military hardware. But that won’t be their main ask. They will seek explicit American commitments to their security. While they may not insist on a formal alliance or treaty obligation, they will not be satisfied with vague assurances in the event they come under attack from Iran or its proxies — and their definition of the threats from Iran and its proxies is likely to include efforts at destabilizing them.

For the president, that presents a problem. He has spoken about being willing to support the Gulf Cooperation Council states against external threats, but not internal ones. He sees greater inclusiveness and improved governance as being as important to their security as any commitments we make to counter external threats. While the president may well be right, there will be little receptivity to such a message. In all likelihood, with the administration wanting the summit to go well, Obama will probably choose either not to raise the issue of political reform or at best tread lightly on it in his conversations.

At any time, this would be a difficult topic, but especially now when these states will be challenging the president to show that he will not accept Iranian hegemony in the region. Neither new arms transfers nor even an increased American military presence in the region will likely suffice to allay the fears of the Gulf leaders. They want to know what specific steps we will take to counter threats to them.

To be sure, actions at this juncture that show we will compete with the Iranians and raise the costs of their aggressive behavior would impress the Gulf states more than any verbal promises or even the provision of new military weaponry. But there is one step more than any other that would impress the Gulf states and show that we will not acquiesce in the growth of Iranian power in the region: creating a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Nothing would do more to change the realities on the ground in Syria. It could provide a place for the roughly 6 million people displaced in Syria to go and respond to a humanitarian imperative; it could revitalize a more secular Syrian opposition by giving them a base to develop in Syria at a time when the Bashar Assad regime is reeling with losses in Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur; it would show that time is running out for Assad and affect both the Russian and Iranian calculus about the value of looking for a real political process to settle the conflict. In addition to putting us in a position to insist that the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Turkey coordinate their actions with us and play their part in financing and policing the zone, it would unmistakably signal a readiness on our part to actually shift the balance of power against the Iranians in the region.

Significantly, it would also demonstrate that we will not sacrifice our interests in the region for fear of how the Iranians would react in the nuclear negotiations. Obviously, the Iranians have slowed none of their efforts to gain leverage in the region over concern of how we might react in the nuclear talks. The fact is the nuclear negotiations have never been a favor the Iranians are doing for us — the deal embodied in the framework understanding serves Iranian interests. Such a deal can also serve our interests, provided the Iranians don’t think they are simply deferring their nuclear weapons option and it does not trigger a series of Gulf Arab state reactions either on proliferation or in the region that proves destabilizing.

That, of course, is why Obama is seeking to reassure them. If he wants the Camp David summit to succeed in this respect, now is the time for him to get serious about a buffer zone in Syria.

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Back to Top


Palestinian Red Crescent workers from Al-Najjar Hospital in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on January 10, 2024 (Image: Shutterstock)

Hamas’ impossible casualty figures

Mar 28, 2024 | Update
455daec3 C2a8 8752 C215 B7bd062c6bbc

After the Israel-Hamas ceasefire for hostages deal

Nov 29, 2023 | Update
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organisation's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO (Screenshot)

Horror on Video / International Law and the Hamas War

Oct 31, 2023 | Update
Sderot, Israel. 7th Oct, 2023. Bodies of dead Israelis lie on the ground following the attacks of Hamas (Image: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News)

Israel’s Sept. 11, only worse

Oct 11, 2023 | Update
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (r) gets his long-awaited face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israeli Government Press Office)

Netanyahu meets Biden, other world leaders, in New York

Sep 27, 2023 | Update
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who gave an address on Aug. 28 threatening the US and laying out the Iranian-led axis's new "unity of the arenas" doctrine. (Photo: Shutterstock, mohammad kassir)

US-Iran prisoner swap deal set to go through

Sep 12, 2023 | Update



Image: Shutterstock

Faith: Shavuot

Image: Shutterstock

Australia must never be a party to cynical, pro-Hamas lawfare

Image: X/Twitter

AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism


“The reason we don’t get to a two-state outcome is the continuing extremism of the Palestinians”: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News

Screenshot 2024 06 06 At 2.30.10 PM

Did Hamas accept ceasefire proposal? ABC can’t get its story straight

Image: Shutterstock

Faith: Shavuot

Image: Shutterstock

Australia must never be a party to cynical, pro-Hamas lawfare

Image: X/Twitter

AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism


“The reason we don’t get to a two-state outcome is the continuing extremism of the Palestinians”: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News

Screenshot 2024 06 06 At 2.30.10 PM

Did Hamas accept ceasefire proposal? ABC can’t get its story straight