Will US sanctions bring Iran back to the negotiating table?

In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Ahmad Majidyar, Gerald Feierstein, and Charles Lister provide analysis on the first batch of U.S. sanctions on Iran, leaked emails that may undermine the Trump administration's Mideast peace plan, and the assassination of a Syrian military scientist.

Will US sanctions bring Iran back to the negotiating table?
Ahmad Majidyar, MEI Fellow, Director of the IranObserved project

The first batch of U.S. sanctions on Iran—which bar Iran from purchasing the U.S. dollar, precious metals, and automotive and aircraft components—are set to snap back into place this week. While more crippling sanctions, including those on Iran’s energy sector and central bank, will not kick in until Nov. 4, the Iranian economy is already feeling the heat, as inflation and the country’s collapsing currency have triggered anti-government protests.

By applying economic and diplomatic pressure, President Donald Trump hopes to force Tehran to negotiate a new deal with his administration. But it remains unclear if that goal is achievable in the absence of broad international support.  

The first key test for the effectiveness of the sanctions will be whether the administration is able to strictly enforce them. While European countries as well as Japan and South Korea are expected to significantly reduce their oil imports from Iran, it is unclear if China and India will follow suit.

It will also become clearer if European powers will be able to salvage the nuclear deal. Despite assurances by their governments, major European companies have already scaled down or cut business ties with Tehran.

And if the Europeans fail to incentivize Iran to stay in the deal, how Iran will respond is also significant. Over the weekend, Iran staged a military drill in the Persian Gulf, signaling that it has the will and capability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and disrupt global oil shipments if it cannot sell its own oil due to sanctions. Will Iran make these threats a reality?

A great deal of uncertainties lie ahead. But early indications point to more confrontation rather than cooperation between Tehran and Washington in the near future.

Trump’s elusive Middle East peace deal
Gerald Feierstein, Director of Gulf Affairs and Government Relations

On Aug. 3, Foreign Policy magazine released emails purportedly from Jared Kushner to U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt suggesting that the administration should make “an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA.” The push is said to reflect the administration’s desire to press states hosting the refugees to take ownership of the Palestinian refugee population. Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat claimed that the administration offered Jordan bilateral assistance equivalent to the funding that UNRWA spent in the country if it would take over the agency’s programs in the country.  

Kushner’s latest push is a continuation of the administration’s attack on UNRWA launched earlier this year, when U.S. annual funding for the program was slashed and new geographic limitations were imposed on the program. At the time, the administration justified its decision over alleged disagreements with the Palestinian Authority on issues related to the peace process. The latest effort appears more likely to be linked with a push to eliminate the refugee problem and the related right of return for Palestinians as legitimate issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Foreign Policy report is likely to severely damage if not entirely derail what appeared to be a new administration push to move forward on Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, although these may amount to less than the promised comprehensive peace proposal. Described by some as a “Gaza first” approach, the new administration policy would allegedly focus on promoting investment in Gaza, largely funded by the Gulf states, and addressing Gaza’s urgent humanitarian and infrastructural requirements. The Palestinian Authority had reportedly expressed a willingness to cooperate with the new approach. But the new controversy over the refugee issue may make Mahmud Abbas’s cooperation difficult, if not impossible.  

The death of a scientist
Charles Lister, Senior Fellow

A leading Syrian military scientist was killed along with his bodyguard late on Saturday, Aug. 4, when a bomb hidden in his car exploded shortly after he left his home near the city of Masyaf in Hama province. Aziz Asbar was an influential figure within Syria’s infamous Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), a government bureau responsible for work on nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile technologies.

Previously the leader of the SSRC-linked “Institute 4000,” which allegedly coordinates chemical weapons research and development, Asbar directed Syria’s “Department 4”—responsible for developing ballistic missiles, heavy artillery rockets, and precision guidance technology. Asbar has been personally linked to the Fateh-110 redevelopment program, converting sophisticated Iranian missiles into an indigenous version, the Tishreen. He has also been accused of involvement in producing Syrian Maysaloun heavy rockets and of running Syria’s so-called “Iran Coordination Committee,” a secretive agency responsible for receiving and distributing weapons from Iran both to Syrian pro-Assad forces and to Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias. Syrian opposition figures also blame Asbar, who is close to President Assad and Hezbollah’s senior leadership, for personally masterminding the manufacture of barrel bombs.

Asbar’s killing was promptly claimed by the Abu Amara Brigades, an Islamist armed group that joined former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in May 2017. However, the claim has been met with widespread skepticism, including within the opposition. The Assad regime and Iranian state media have instead accused Israel, which has a history of targeting Iran-linked military scientists involved in missile development in Syria, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran. Israel’s air force also targeted an SSRC chemical weapons facility run by “Unit 450” in the Masyaf area on Jul. 22 and previously in September 2017. Were Israel to be responsible, Asbar’s killing would signal a new phase in its pushback on Iran-linked threats across its border in Syria.

Photo by Iranian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images