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Rolf Ekéus was a patient tutor on the Middle East, and he spent some tedious hours on the phone with me from his post at The Hague after events forced him to give up heading the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq. Ekéus chaired the panel during the 1990s, crucial years when Saddam Hussein (contrary to revisionist historians) tried to circumnavigate sanctions to build weapons of mass destruction.
In the middle of conversations about Saddam’s regime—Iraqi officials thwarted Ekéus in inspection tours and at one point offered a $2 million bribe to doctor reports—the Swedish diplomat said something about Iraq’s neighbor I couldn’t forget: “Iran should be the most natural U.S. ally in the region.”
Not finding new ground for that relationship after the 1979 revolution, Ekéus believed, was a lost opportunity. Iran is the natural outlier in the region—a Persian not Arab culture with unique history separate from religiously driven Arab conquests; a mostly Muslim nation whose lead language is Farsi, an Indo-European language not the Quran-mandated Arabic; a lead oil supplier with a once-thriving economy and heavy emphasis on education. Iran under the shah developed extensive U.S. ties, ties severed when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Today more than 1.5 million people of Iranian descent live in the United States—the largest number outside Iran.
Those are reasons to care, not coddle the regime. The Ekéus hope wasn’t wrong, just overtaken by events. Iranians next year will mark 40 years under a religious dictatorship. The ayatollahs have introduced the world to the cruel realities of life under state-imposed Islam. They spread their revolutionary model to Africa and beyond, seeding political movements with terrorist strains while equipping myriad terrorist groups aimed at threatening the West.
Iranians have been protesting their government in some form almost daily for the past year and are a potent force for change.
Earlier this year a top Iranian official admitted what investigators and families of 9/11 victims have known for years: Iran’s intelligence service worked with al-Qaeda’s leaders to provide cover to 9/11 planners and hijackers, even safe passage through Iran. As the world could not abide a Saddam Hussein possessing chemical weapons, so it cannot abide an Iran with nuclear weapons.
Yet Ekéus-like hopes prevailed in internationalist circles and the Obama White House—and led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That deal has unraveled following the United States’ May withdrawal and withering sanctions.
The sanctions the Trump administration imposed in May marked the 17th round of U.S. sanctions and brought to 145 the number of individuals and entities now barred from U.S. soil and U.S. markets. The goal, said State Department policy adviser Brian Hook, is “to force Iran into simple but hard choices of whether to cease or persist in the policies that trigger the sanctions.”
Europeans have howled over the American about-face, but European businesses are getting on board: Siemens, Daimler Benz, Total, and Maersk are among major firms that have announced they’ll stop doing business with Iran.
Yet the most stringent round of sanctions is due in November, to stop Iranian oil exports and throttle international sales by denying Iran access to SWIFT, the network facilitating global financial transactions.
But sanctions are a tool of foreign policy, not the policy itself. The Trump administration is taking needed steps on paper, yet needs to engage more. Iran in the Bush and Obama years gained ground that will take savvy muscle in the region (with Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others) to roll back. Since the latest rounds of sanctions went into effect, Iran has reportedly moved long-range missiles into Iraq and has opened a missile factory in northwestern Syria.
In it all, it’s important not to forget the Iranian people and their potential role in changing the course of their nation. Iranians have been protesting their government in some form almost daily for the past year and are a potent force for change. Yet the United States hasn’t highlighted their cause, but has blocked nearly all Iranians from entering the United States, including nearly 100 whose cases we’ve followed in Vienna, Iranians extended invitations for asylum but now blocked under opaque U.S. rules.
To be successful a tough sanctions policy needs to be wed to Ekéus-like hope for future ties to Iran’s people, a promise that hasn’t passed.