Morning Brief

U.S. Slaps New Sanctions on Iran as U.N. Arms Embargo Set to Expire

Washington is trying to ensure the pressure stays on Iran, but Moscow could try to strengthen its ties to Tehran.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a news conference as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens during the announcement of the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions on Iran.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a news conference as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens during the announcement of the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions on Iran on Sept. 21 in Washington. Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The U.N. arms embargo on Iran is set to expire, Michigan’s governor targeted in a kidnapping plot, and Turkey and Greece agree to talks over their eastern Mediterranean dispute.

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The End of the Embargo Could Cause Iran to Turn Toward Russia

The U.N. arms embargo on Iran is set to expire on Sunday despite repeated efforts by the United States to extend the moratorium as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against Tehran.

America alone. The United States was determined to ensure Iran couldn’t buy and sell weapons. As the end of the arms embargo began to loom in August, Washington tried to push a resolution through the U.N. Security Council that would have extended it indefinitely. The resolution was opposed by China and Russia, while France, Germany, and the United Kingdom abstained from the vote, isolating the United States and highlighting its marginal position on Iran.

More sanctions. But the Trump administration has been working to preempt the end of the arms embargo by unleashing a new round of sanctions on Tehran. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped punishing sanctions on 18 banks due to their links to Iran and the Iranian military. “Our sanctions programs will continue until Iran stops its support of terrorist activities and ends its nuclear programs,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

This follows a move by Washington late last month to impose sanctions on the Iranian defense ministry and others involved in the country’s nuclear and weapons programs, and included action against those who buy or sell Iranian weapons. The White House used that round of sanctions to argue that the arms embargo, in effect, had been restored.

Russia taking an interest. Despite the introduction of new U.S. sanctions, the end of the arms embargo could open new opportunities for Iran to develop stronger ties with Russia. In 2019, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency predicted that Iran would begin buying high-grade military equipment from Russia, and on Monday, Levan Jagarian, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, said his government will consider selling one of its advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran.

What We’re Following Today 

Michigan governor under threat. The FBI and local authorities in Michigan have charged 13 individuals under anti-terrorism legislation over an attempt to kidnap state Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a shocking case of attempted political violence that comes as the United States is grappling with a surge of extremist activity. Some of those charged were members of the “Wolverine Watchmen” militia group.

The suspects “made threats of violence intended to instigate a civil war, and engaged in planning and training for an operation to attack the capitol building of Michigan and to kidnap government officials, including the governor of Michigan,” an official said at a press conference.

The news comes a week after U.S. President Donald Trump refused to explicitly condemn white supremacist groups during the first presidential debate, telling the Proud Boys militia group to “stand back and stand by.”

History at the WTO. Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee are the only remaining candidates to serve as the next director-general of the World Trade Organization, meaning the body will be led by a woman for the first time in its history. The position was narrowed down to those two after candidates from Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom were eliminated. Okonjo-Iweala is considered the favorite, and a victory would also make her the first WTO head from Africa. She previously served as Nigeria’s minister of finance and spent more than two decades working at the World Bank. The new director-general will be announced in early November.

Duque wants FARC lawmakers out. Colombian President Ivan Duque wants to expel two former commanders of the paramilitary Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from the country’s congress after they admitted to being responsible for the assassination of a presidential candidate in 1995. Several former members of the FARC signed a letter to the Justice for Peace court last week taking responsibility for the killing. Two signatories of the letter, Julian Gallo and Pablo Catatumbo, are current members of congress, owing to the terms laid out in the 2016 peace deal between the government and the FARC.

Duque is a vehement critic of the peace agreement, and he said that the two lawmakers “should immediately lose the connotation of being a member of Congress.” Otherwise, he expressed hope that the justice system would deal with them.

Keep an Eye On 

Turkey and Greece agree to talk. Turkey and Greece have agreed to hold exploratory talks sometime in the near future aimed at resolving their ongoing dispute in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would host the first round of talks, but both governments were still working on setting a date.

Tensions boiled over earlier this summer after Turkey sent a research vessel to survey possible oil and gas reserves in the region, where both Ankara and Athens have overlapping maritime claims. The vessel was accompanied by a Turkish naval ship, angering Greece and sparking a tense standoff that saw both sides flex their military muscle in the area. Although it is unclear what the outcome of the planned talks could be, there is good reason to be optimistic. As Michaël Tanchum wrote in Foreign Policy in August, “there are strong incentives for most of the parties in the region and the European Union to contain the current escalation and find an off-ramp to the crisis.”

“Home by Christmas.” Trump said in a tweet late on Wednesday that the remaining U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan should return to the United States by Christmas, hours after National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the United States would reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year. “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Trump said.

The phrasing of the tweet was somewhat ambiguous, but it was in line with Trump’s long-held goal of pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and ending the near two-decade-long war in the country. The agreement signed with the Taliban in February committed the United States to withdrawing from the country by May 2021. But as the end of the U.S. involvement looms, Emran Feroz wrote in Foreign Policy that “the war on terrorism in Afghanistan promised reconstruction, women’s rights, economic dynamism, justice for the 9/11 attacks, and democracy. All have fallen flat.”

Odds and Ends 

U.S. Senator Mike Lee, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, published a controversial post on Twitter on Thursday in which he challenged the notion that democracy is an “objective” of the American political system (he also misspelled the word “prosperity” in the process.) “Democracy isn’t the objective;” he wrote, “liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” The tweet invited a torrent of criticism, with some detractors accusing Lee of closet authoritarianism. 

That’s it for today. 

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Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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