U.S. Ends Waivers for Iranian Oil Sanctions

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

May 1, 2019

The Trump administration announced this week that it would no longer extend an exemption waiver for oil imports from Iran to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy or Greece. The removal of the waiver marks an increase in U.S. pressure on Iran, which finances a large portion of its annual budget through oil sales, but puts the United States on a diplomatic collision course with major trading partners. This development has been welcomed by some in the region, even as the Iranian government and other critics consider it a serious provocation that could lead to conflict.


Those who support the decision, like Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Al-dossary, argue that tightening the screws on the Iranian regime will weaken Iran’s ability to finance militias and other armed groups in the region: “Since the start of U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports, there has been a remarkable decline in Iran’s role abroad, as it faces the risk of not being able to finance its agents in the Middle East, such as the militias that fight proxy wars in Syria, in addition, the Hezbollah party has started to openly show its financial crisis. Preventing Iran from obtaining the funds it needs to finance its foreign policy, its agents and its missile program, is the best solution to change its behavior without firing a single bullet. A stable Middle East cannot be envisioned if Iran continues to fund its militias throughout the Arab world.”

Writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Majid Rafizadeh asserts that, by putting further pressure on Iran’s oil exports, the U.S. government is weakening Iran’s influence in Syria: “Sanctions leveled by the U.S. on the Iranian government’s military institution — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliates — as well as the banking system and the oil sector are placing significant pressure on the Islamic Republic…. But it is not only inside the country that the Iranian leaders are feeling the economic losses; Tehran’s economic influence, investments and assistance to other countries, particularly Syria, are being negatively impacted too…. Tehran has invested billions of dollars in Syria, but its investments are currently at risk as the regime cannot afford to spend such amounts assisting Assad. To the Syrian president’s dismay, Iran cannot act as Syria’s economic lifeline any longer.”

Eliminating Iran’s “irksome meddling” is also the theme of this recent Gulf News editorial: “The move by the Oval Office signals its intent that the regime in Tehran will be held accountable for flouting international principles and continuing to spread sedition and its malign influence from the Bab Al Mandab to the Mediterranean. This approach is necessary — given the insidious nature of the regime in Tehran…. The message to Tehran is that economic sanctions are in place because of the actions of the leadership, that they are working, and that they remain as the most realistic means to ensure the regime reverses course or faces the consequences for its policies and actions.”

The National’s Con Coughlin characterizes the White House’s decision as a “tough but necessary move,” but expresses concern about the impact of the elimination of the waiver on U.S. relations with its allies and trade partners: “It is not just Iran that will suffer from the Trump administration’s decision to increase the sanctions stranglehold on Tehran. The decision by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to end the waiver on those countries still buying oil from Iran is going to have profound implications for a number of Washington’s important allies, as well as adding increased pressure on America’s already strained trading relationship with China…. However, while Washington’s decision to end the waiver on Iranian oil is undoubtedly going to cause difficulties, it is unlikely to result in a change of policy on the part of the Trump administration for the very good reason that all the evidence suggests that the sanctions are working.”

Conversely, Mohammad Ghaderi, in an op-ed for Tehran Times, points out previous failures to contain Iran: “Evidently, Trump has started a dangerous game against the Islamic Republic of Iran; a game that the White House started but its end will not be determined by Trump or his allies. Let’s remember that Washington has already made wrong predictions about reaching its goals with pressuring Iran’s economy. Following Washington’s withdrawal from JCPOA in May, Trump had claimed two critical time periods that would force Iran into economic collapse, predicting that they are likely to be in August and November…. Washington is doing another ill-fated attempt in starting an oil conflict with Iran. However, this failure will have far heavier costs for the U.S. compared to the last year.”

The threat of escalation worries Arutz Sheva’s Yochanan Visser, who points out that the increased U.S. military posture in the region, combined with recent hardliner military appointments in Iran, could lead to conflict: “Immediately after the announcement of the new measure against Iran’s continuing aggression in the region, reports came in that the US military had started to build-up its forces in the Middle East…. The deployment of the naval forces and the F-35s is the clearest signal to date that the Trump Administration will not hesitate to use force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open and comes after increased cooperation between the Israeli military and the US army over the past few months…. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , meanwhile, this week decided to appoint Hossein Salami the hawkish deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as the new head of the organization.”

Writing for Jerusalem Post, however, Yaakov Katz pours cold water on such talk, convinced that the Trump administration is keen to achieve its objectives without firing “a single shot” : “Israelis officials have often looked back on the events of 2003 as proof that Iran’s nuclear program can be stopped without a single shot being fired. Military force, they claim, doesn’t actually have to be used: Just the threat of it. It is within this context that it is worth looking at the Trump administration’s recent moves against Iran, culminating in this week’s decision to not permit any more waivers for countries that decide to buy Iranian oil….Does this mean that the U.S. is planning action against Iran? Of course not. It could be that the deployment of so many strategic platforms in the Middle East is actually meant to send a message to Russia – as it pertains to its presence in Syria – more than it is to Iran.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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