The Times of Israel quoted Fischer as saying, “Austria alone cannot lift the sanctions. The EU cannot do it alone too, but it’s the international community that should do it.” He added that he could not personally predict how long it would be before Iranian markets were fully opened to the West, but also that he was hopeful “that all sides will remain committed to the nuclear deal so that all of Iran’s sanctions are lifted in due and scheduled time.”
In addition to avoiding political judgments regarding the persistence of some sanctions, Fischer specifically highlighted the role that the United States plays in determining whether Iran will gain access to international banking transactions. Numerous recent reports have indicated that financial institutions were avoiding transactions with Iran despite the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions in January, out of fear that they might still become subject to punitive measures and seizure of assets in the future.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has cited this fear to support a narrative of ongoing American “aggression,” which has slowed Iran’s economic recovery and process of reengaging with foreign countries’ import markets for oil and other commodities. But the US has abided by its obligations under last summer’s nuclear agreement, as by releasing tens of billions of dollars in Iranian assets that had been frozen in US banks.
It was established in the agreement – and in the Obama administration’s descriptions of that agreement to the American public – that the US would retain sanctions on Iran’s human rights violations and support for international terrorism, as well as the capability to re-impose sanctions or impose new sanctions over new instances of Iranian misbehavior.
It has already done so on at least two occasions, beginning shortly after the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, at which point the US Treasury Department sanctioned eleven entities tied to the Iranian ballistic missile program, in response to an October missile test that violated a United Nations Security Council Resolution banning the Islamic Republic from any work on weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The Iranian president responded to this move by ordering the rapid expansion of Iran’s ballistic missile stockpiles, and this defiant tone has persisted and was expressed through three additional missile tests on March 8 and 9. Amidst ongoing criticism from the US and its allies, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh has vowed that the program surrounding these tests will continue without alteration.
“Even if they build a wall around Iran, our missile program will not stop,” Hajizadeh said on Monday, according to Rudaw. Furthermore, President Rouhani utilized his first cabinet meeting in the new Iranian year, which began on March 20, to deliver more general boasts about the growth of the nation’s military capability. “We will pursue any measure to boost our defense might, and this is a strategic policy,” he said.
Hajizadeh’s further remarks effectively repeated Supreme Leader Khamenei’s claims about US aggression, saying, “They [the Western powers] are trying to frighten our officials with sanctions and invasion. This fear is our biggest threat.”
This rhetoric is arguably undermined simply by the US government’s compliance with the terms of sanctions relief outlined in the nuclear deal that was agreed among seven parties. But more than that, the rhetoric is especially undermined by last week’s reports that the US had assigned diplomats to promote the nuclear agreement to US-based multinational businesses, effectively encouraging them to invest in Iran and to mitigate their own fears of future sanctions.
While these moves have been credited with providing an effective answer to Khamenei’s criticisms, they have themselves been criticized by Western legislators and commentators who view such proactive engagement as going too far beyond the original scope of the nuclear deal. These concerns were expressed in The Tower on Tuesday, in an article that quoted a number of policy analysts and Republican congressmen as suggesting that the Obama administration was moving to betray its former assurances that Iran would not gain access to the US dollar, much less to American assets.
As the article notes, those commentators and particularly those legislators are pushing back against these latest efforts, urging the US to avoid giving more wealth than was agreed upon to a country that is widely regarded as the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo expressed concern that direct exchange with Iran “could give the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foothold in the US.” And Illinois Senator Mark Kirk would ignore previous legislation indicating that “Iran’s entire financial sector” is a potential source of money-laundering for terrorist organizations.
Furthermore, the leading scholars with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argued that by taking sanctions relief to this end, the Obama administration would be giving away the last bit of leverage that the US had retained not only with regard to the Iranian nuclear program but also with regard to the ballistic missile issue and other illicit behaviors.
However, even if these scholars and their advocates in Congress do not succeed in blocking the Obama administration’s plans, there is a chance that those plans will not have the effect that the Iranian regime hopes they will. This conclusion was suggested by an article that appeared in Reuters on Tuesday, which also further undermined the Iranian supreme leader’s notion that the failures of the post-sanctions recovery are purely the result of an American conspiracy.
A wide variety of reforms were promised by President Rouhani when he took office in 2013, but were never delivered upon. Yet some feel that a less hardline parliament may allow Rouhani to move forward with a reformist agenda, which would increase the ease of doing business in Iran and would also reduce the risk of arbitrary arrests of dual nationals and other persons with ties to the West.
However, many critics of the regime suggest that no such reforms will be forthcoming, or even that Rouhani never had any intention of pursuing them in the first place. In fact, an editorial that appeared in Al Arabiya last week pointed out that under so-called reformist administrations, the crackdown on civil rights and pro-Western sentiments has always tended to increase in Iran. This perception is borne out by the brief history of Rouhani’s presidency, during which the rate of executions has been greater than any time in more than 20 years and the rights of women and minorities have taken a step backward in a number of areas.
To the extent that this is scaring off would-be liaisons between Iranian and American businesses, Reuters indicates that it has dramatically increased the amount of difficult faced by international companies that already wish to invest in Iran. Thus, as long as Iranian behavior remains what it is, it is possible that the situation will only change slightly if the Obama administration releases American businesses from the apparent danger of lingering sanctions enforcement.