Document of the Week: Risk of Iranian Retaliation Has Long Spooked Gulf Allies

What happens when Washington pushes Tehran too hard.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

Economic sanctions have been the go-to policy choice for Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. President Barack Obama’s administration credited sanctions with bringing Tehran to the table to sign a landmark 2015 deal to curb Iran's nuclear activities.

While President Donald Trump ditched the nuclear deal, saying it failed to constrain Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East, he looked to economic sanctions to prod Tehran into agreeing to a tougher deal that would not only curb the country's nuclear program but also rein in its proxies and allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Iran’s decision to shoot down a U.S. military drone near the Strait of Hormuz this week supplied a vivid illustration of the risks of confrontation that come with a smothering sanctions policy. It’s a point that some of America’s closest allies in the region have made to Washington over the years.

Economic sanctions have been the go-to policy choice for Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. President Barack Obama’s administration credited sanctions with bringing Tehran to the table to sign a landmark 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activities.

While President Donald Trump ditched the nuclear deal, saying it failed to constrain Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East, he looked to economic sanctions to prod Tehran into agreeing to a tougher deal that would not only curb the country’s nuclear program but also rein in its proxies and allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Iran’s decision to shoot down a U.S. military drone near the Strait of Hormuz this week supplied a vivid illustration of the risks of confrontation that come with a smothering sanctions policy. It’s a point that some of America’s closest allies in the region have made to Washington over the years.

In this week’s Document of the Week, we are highlighting a June 1995 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which describes a warning from an Emirati official that excessive use of sanctions could backfire with Iran. The cable, which was published by the George Washington University’s National Security Archive, is titled “On U.S. Iran Policy: Quit While You’re Ahead?” In it, an Emirati official praises the U.S. sanctions policy for pressuring Iran to back away from the fatwa it had issued against the novelist Salman Rushdie and taking a less aggressive stance in the Strait of Hormuz.

“In his view, the regime is worried about its growing isolation and is working hard to court outside support,” the cable’s author noted, adding that Iran’s concerns over its worsening economy, particularly its worries about the impact on trade with Europe and East Asia, were driving a softening of policy. “However, if Iran were pushed over the brink, he argued, the aftermath could pose risks for the entire region.”

“If the regime was seriously threatened, it might try to retaliate,” the Emirati official cautioned, according to the cable’s author. “It if collapsed, the ensuing instability would also pose serious problems for the region.”

Sound familiar?

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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