x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Pressure on Iran weakened by US waivers on oil

This is not the time for the international community to ease the sanctions on Iran.

Trade sanctions are not a weapon the world uses lightly, nor often. In recent decades, trade growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and increased the whole world's wealth; banning a country from this banquet is a drastic punishment. That is one reason why sanctions and related measures are most appropriate and effective when they express the world's moral repugnance, as with South African apartheid in the 1980s.

Sanctions are also difficult to enforce. Any loopholes and exemptions in a sanctions regime are highly likely to be exploited, widened and abused, as we saw with the "oil for food" programme in Iraq (1995-2003).

And sanctions are a two-edged sword. Weakening an economy hurts ordinary people and the middle class more than the elite; in a weaker country a regime can in the short term gain power, not lose it.

Yet sanctions aimed at Iran's oil exports are the only non-violent way to drive Iran away from its deliberate nuclear ambiguity. "Smart sanctions" against the Revolutionary Guard and the leadership might appear insufficient, but they are surely preferable to an Israeli or US military strike. If sanctions fail, some awkward choices will have to be faced.

That however is tomorrow's problem. Today's is how to keep the pressure on Iran by adding to the current stew of measures by the US, the UN, the EU and individual countries. Last week SWIFT, a European-based network for international money transfers, excluded Iran's banks, cutting off a principal method of paying for Iranian oil. And it is a disruption of oil sales that would hurt Iran's leaders most.

But this week the US, Iran's arch-foe, did the whole sanctions regime real damage by deeming 11 countries exempt from US sanctions, while calling this an "initial" list. Countries not exempted, notably China and India, could lose certain forms of financial access to US markets.

The US says its friends need exemptions because they have cut their oil purchases from Iran but need to keep buying some crude there. There is some truth in that; the Iran oil tap cannot be turned off overnight.

But this unilateral move, coming when oil prices are high in a US presidential election year, will seem to many to be a toxic blend of domestic political calculation and American bullying. Sure enough, oil prices tumbled Wednesday after the exemptions announcement.

This US decision undermines international solidarity, opens the way to unseemly back room deals, reeks of manipulation and seems sure to weaken the international consensus upon which the success of sanctions depends.