Symbolic Western Sanctions Will Not Change Iran’s Behavior – OpEd


By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The EU and the Australian government last week announced new sanctions that aim to pursue the Western policy of changing the behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their respective announcements were part of a calibrated political strategy to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and Europe. These sanctions are a sign of the deteriorating Iranian-Western relations in the context of the Red Sea crisis, the Israel-Gaza war and Iranian support to the Russian war effort against Ukraine.

These sanctions are different from previous ones because they could be a sign that, if Iran does not change its regional strategy, Europe could designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. The trigger of such a designation could be an increase in tensions in the Middle East and military escalation between Iran and Western-based military forces in the region. Another potential factor behind these sanctions could be the rise of Iranian military support to Russian forces, especially the delivery of missiles that could hit European soil.

If Europe decides to put the IRGC on its sanctions list, the implications could be the closure of European member states’ respective embassies in Tehran and a rise in the number of EU nationals imprisoned in Iran. There are currently a dozen EU citizens in jail in Iran, including four French nationals and Johan Floderus, a Swedish national who is an employee of the European External Action Service.

For now, Brussels has decided to broaden the scope of its existing restrictive measures. This decision was taken in the context of Iran’s military support to Russia’s war against Ukraine and armed groups in the Middle East and Red Sea. The framework of the new sanctions was adopted in July 2023. It already prohibits the export of components used in the construction and production of unmanned aerial vehicles from the EU to Iran and provides for travel restrictions and asset freeze measures against anybody supporting or involved in Iran’s UAV program.

What is new this time is that the European Council has decided that the restrictive measures will now cover not only UAVs but missiles too. The EU will target persons and entities supplying or selling missiles, as well as those involved in transferring Iran’s missiles and UAVs to support Russia’s war against Ukraine and Iranian armed groups and entities that undermine peace and security in the Middle East, such as by breaching UN Security Council Resolution 2216. The targeted sanctions will include an asset freeze and EU travel ban for the persons concerned, along with the prohibition of any financial transactions with legal entities linked to them.

On the same day, Australia decided to announce new targeted sanctions in response to Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East. These sanctions target an additional five Iranian individuals and three entities. They include senior officials, such as Defense Minister Mohammed Reza Ashtiani and Quds Force commander Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani. These Australian sanctions are in addition to the Albanese government’s previous actions: Canberra has now sanctioned 90 Iranian-linked individuals and 100 entities.

The timing of the new EU and Australian sanctions is important, given the Western fear of a military escalation in the Middle East. These actions are designed to avoid a regional war following the rise in military tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv in April. The Iranian reaction to these new sanctions highlighted “the double-standard approach of Australia and its Western partners toward developments in the region.” Tehran accused Australia of “remaining silent against the Zionist regime’s attack on diplomatic premises and providing it with weapons for the brutal killing of the defenseless people of Gaza.”

Beyond this harsh rhetoric from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ghaani last week stated that “France, Germany and the UK must not deceive themselves into believing that their deployment of aircraft on that fateful night absolved them of responsibility. The issue may have been concluded on that evening, but they will undoubtedly face consequences in due course.” This threatening rhetoric shows that the IRGC leadership is concerned by the military success of Western countries in intercepting Iranian missiles and drones during Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel on April 14.

This rise in tensions between Australia, the EU and Iran does not mean that the new sanctions will impact Iranian oil exports, which in March reached their highest level since the US’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal in 2018. Nevertheless, the comprehensive Western sanction regimes against Iran will complicate the reconnection between the Iranian economy and the international system in the short term.

Also, the rise of military tensions is detrimental to the Iranian economy, as potential non-Western investors will continue to remain cautious given the volatility of the regional context. In other words, even without any political will to implement sanctions in Brussels, Canberra or Washington, the Iranian economy cannot recover in a volatile regional context.

The key to provoking behavior change in Iran is not through symbolic sanctions targeting specific military institutions, but rather through the implementation of sanctions related to Iranian oil exports that are decisive for the survival of the Iranian political system. The designation of the IRGC — one of the main economic actors involved in the oil sector — as a terrorist organization could provoke such a behavior change in the decision-making process in Iran.

Overall, these new sanctions will raise the cost of Iran’s investments that focus on the military, which the Iranian leadership has prioritized instead of the well-being of the Iranian people. Today, most of the population is confronted with daily inflation, mismanagement of the economy and degrading living conditions. Poor policies and governance are far more important factors in explaining Iran’s economic difficulties than symbolic Western sanctions.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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