The Methodological Failure of US Unilateral Sanctions Against the IR of Iran


During his four years in office, Trump was able to inflict unprecedented damages on the Iranian economy with his special architecture of economic sanctions after nuking the JCPOA. The former US president designed the architecture of comprehensive unilateral sanctions, placing Iranian economy under pressure without international coordination. But by doing so, he demonstrated that his main goal was not simply to sign a better deal. Trump manipulated the sanctions in such a way as to bolster the effect of the fifth column on the political, economic, and social system of Iran for his long-term political and strategic plans. Despite his efforts, however, the mechanism he had planned for the sanctions did not succeed. His unilateralism in implementing the economic sanctions meant that the incentives offered to Iran at the same time did not have the power to strengthen the effects of the fifth column. In fact, as the people and officials of Iran had assessed the US government to be the violator of international treaties over the previous years, the promises and incentives of the Trump administration bore no weight with the Iranian people and government. On the other hand, due to Iran’s increasing military power, the political establishment in this country showed no hesitation when faced with US military threats. Hence, the sanctions backfired. Instead of creating a fifth column effect, they helped boost national unity in Iran. Although the sanctions put Iran in a tight spot, they were unable to reach their intended goals.


Unilateral US Sanctions: The Fifth Column or Rally ‘Round the Flag?

Whether the blockade is taking effect or not is the most important focus of governments who regulate their sanctions according to the social, economic, and political structures of the target country. In other words, the sanctions regime implemented on one country and its goals depend to a large extent on the political structure and economic situation of that country. Therefore, one form of sanctions may be very effective on a government, while it may have minimal or no effects on another.

Contrary to what observers believe, there is no direct link between the economic and political outcome of sanctions. A sanctions regime may gravely affect the economy of a country, yet it may not attain its intended political goals. Also, the sanctioning country may sanction the target country in such a way that it may have big political achievements despite minimal economic consequences. In point of fact, governments usually have political and strategic goals in implementing sanctions and the economy only serves as a tool to control the behavior of other countries.

A precise interaction is seen between the extent of sanctions and political goals. Experts in the study of economic sanctions have concluded that when the sanctioning country uses partial sanctions, it is mostly seeking a change in behavior. In contrast, when economic sanctions are comprehensive, the final objective is regime change. Comprehensive sanctions are a regime of economic sanctions which does not differentiate between any economic sectors in the target state and places the entire economy as a whole under economic pressure. Whether the economic sanctions are partial or comprehensive usually depends on the power of the sanctioning country. States with large economies can easily impose comprehensive sanctions on the target state and place added pressure on all its economic pillars.

Sanctions also have different effects according to the views of different participants. Contrary to initial beliefs, unilateral sanctions stand a better chance of reaching their political goals. Multilateral sanctions face a big hurdle called orchestration and conflict of interests. Hence, the sanctioned country can always use the mechanism defined for economic sanctions to find a window for reducing its economic ailments. But in unilateral sanctions, a country can place maximum pressure on the target state without the need to orchestrate with others or consider their political and economic interests.

Researchers of economic sanctions believe that when these lack incentive tools, they form the background for a rally ‘round the flag in the target state, thus leaving an inverse political imprint compared with sanctions using the carrot and stick strategy. In contrast, the carrot and stick strategy strengthens the performance of the fifth column inside a country. In such a situation, incentive tools become a factor in strengthening the opposition and pave the way for accepting the demands of the sanctioning state by applying economic, political, and social pressures.

All of the abovementioned was an introduction to a better understanding of the American sanctions regime imposed by the Trump administration in order to break the political will of the IR of Iran and weaken its economic structure. Of course, analyzing economic structures are rather lengthy, complicated, and outside the scope of this article. But in analyzing sanctions during the Trump era, it is noteworthy to say that the US government used a unilateral sanctions regime against Iran, which was unprecedented in the world.

These types of economic sanctions are used at a time when the sanctioning country has made all the arrangements to apply maximum pressure on a government. In fact, when the US government applied the comprehensive economic pressures on the Iranian economy, it also placed all necessary measures to block Iranian economic activities on its agenda due to the unwillingness of other countries to join in the sanctions.


1. Firing the Silver Bullet at a Baseball Game

Trump adopted a moderate policy towards Iran when he first took office, allowing the comprehensive US strategy against Iran to take its final shape. The Trump administration was careful not to make a faux pas[1] until a complete strategy had been designed against Iran, adopted from the policies of the Reagan era to push back the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In the same way that Reagan was able to exploit overt and covert economic, political, human rights, diplomatic, and intelligence tools to achieve victory against the Soviets, Trump, who is also determined to confront Iran, planned a similar strategy with highly coordinated, creative expert planning to antagonize Iran.[2] The metaphor “Playing hardball”, which originated in baseball, is used in American culture when one party uses aggressive, ruthless behavior to force the other side to bend to its will.[3]

Within this context, Trump used a range of tools simultaneously to increase his policy performance when confronting Tehran. Economic pressures, military threats, extensive intelligence and security activities, expanding diplomatic activities, and upgrading political links with West-leaning currents inside the country within the framework of protecting human rights were used against Tehran by the White House in a mounting trend.[4] The US under Trump concluded that the prerequisite for the success of each tool was its homogeneity with the other ones.

Among all tools, however, widespread non-nuclear sanctions of a new nature were Trump’s silver bullet for the Iranian people. The silver bullet metaphor means a simple, magical solution for a complicated issue. For the reasons that follow, the sanctions seemed like a silver bullet in US foreign policy:


  1. Speed in design and execution
  2. Swift, tangible results
  3. Easy justification
  4. Applicable to small and large goals
  5. Invasion without military attack on the target state[5]

Senior fellow in the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, Suzanne Maloney, focuses her research on Iran. She was the first person to use the metaphor for nuclear sanctions when Trump first took office, saying that he must shoot another silver bullet at Tehran for behavior change.[6]

Sanctions under Trump were distinct in dimension and function compared with previous eras, aiming to increasingly impact the other side. The architecture of sanctions under Trump was designed to make them extremely difficult to circumvent. Trump used the sanctions as a silver bullet to play hardball and strip the other side of all its chances when firing it.

His main goal in using this method of sanctions was mainly to reach his strategic and political targets, oblivious to the fact that not only was this methodology powerless to strengthen the political outcome, it would eventually have the inverse effect. In Figure 1, it is clearly shown why the Trump sanctions did not attain their optimal results. His maximum pressure policy in the economic sector was accompanied by asymmetrical political pressures which, in the end, summoned up the resistance of the Iranian people due to unbelievable incentive tools, such as lifting sanctions, and the lack of deterrence in the military option. This national resistance led to a rally ‘round the flag against the maximum pressure policy. Of course, the effects of this pressure were indirect. As seen in the schematic model, the lines are dashed. The interaction of asymmetric political pressures, maximum economic pressure, and resistance by the Iranian people finally led to the failure of the sanctions. All the while, the focal point and main reason for the methodological failure of US economic sanctions was the resistance of the Iranian people.


Methodology of Trump's Comprehensive Unilateral Sanctions Against Iran

Trump-era sanctions were dynamic and tailored to the current state of the global economy. They changed on a daily basis as and when the global economy changed to prevent Iran from finding a way out during the changes.[7] In implementing the sanctions, no distinctions were made between small and large behaviors; every action by Iran deemed as malicious behavior by the US opened a new chapter in sanctions. This feature of sanctions was the key to rearranging the pressures of nuclear sanctions in the new era.[8] The legal scope of Trump-era sanctions was seen as very wide, in particular allowing the return of all previous sanctions.

Human rights played a pivotal role in the Trump-era sanctions. In the architecture of sanctions, a link was established between all sectors and human rights sanctions. Lifting any sanctions in every sector, including the IRGC, missiles or support for terrorism, depended on improving human rights and providing for the illusionary views of the United States.[9]


Figure 1. The Ineffectiveness of Trump-

Era Economic Sanctions


This feature was especially aimed at challenging political legitimacy, starting revisionist movements, or empowering the fifth column inside the country. To create a global consensus, Trump focused on private international companies and agencies. To this end, the strictest of regulations were adopted for working with Iran where private companies played an effective role.[10]

Trump was not merely contented with sanctioning Iran on the oil market. He partly compensated for the loss of Iranian oil and prevented price shocks to the market with a staggering increase in production and the abandonment of climate laws. Granting oil exemptions allowed him to protect his allies from any changes in the price of oil on the global market. With this approach, Trump succeeded in gradually reducing Iran’s share of the market to a minimum at no cost to the global oil market.

Technology played a tremendous part in the impact of the new sanctions. In the new generation of sanctions, the US used technological innovations as leverage to implement them. In addition to blocking the assets of the target country and its access to the American financial system, the inactivation of all the servers and computers of the sanctioned country related to its financial affairs were placed on the agenda.[11] The new capability can have a tremendous impact on building a global consensus against the target state, because all the countries who conduct financial transactions with the US will side with it rather than go it alone from fear of sanctions on technology.

The Trump-era sanctions against Iran were guided and based on behavior change. As claimed by the Americans, these were precisely imposed on behavior and will be lifted only if a change in behavior is seen objectively.[12] At this time, sanctions were based on up-to-date modeling and accurate information on the vulnerability of the Iranian economy, to put pressure at the lowest cost to the US with the greatest impact on the target country.[13] For example, the US must have daily reports on the role and influence of the IRGC in various sectors of the Iranian economy in order the block escape routes. A prime example of this can be seen on lower bank interest rates during Mr Rouhani’s second term in office. As Mr Rouhani's second government was reluctant to continue the contractionary policies of the first four years, when bank interest rates plummeted and liquidity flooded the market, unilateral sanctions targeted the Iranian economy widely.

Focus on non-financial companies intensified in Trump's sanctions. The Obama-era nuclear sanctions showed that sanctioning non-financial companies, such as shipping and petrochemicals, could be rather effective in applying pressure.[14] This was seriously emphasized by Trump. Given that this was a significant source of revenue for Iran, Trump not only imposed unprecedented sanctions on the Iranian financial system, he also made efforts to block its maritime trade routes.

At this point, the key principle of ambiguity in the application of sanctions was also considered.

Regulations for US sanctions are ambiguous at the best of times. This provides the opportunity to sustain them and makes violation more difficult.[15] Placing the IRGC on the list for terrorist organizations facilitated the justification of sanctions while showing a new level of stricter sanctions against Iran.[16]

During this period, it was believed that if American politicians gradually added to the list of Iranian missile sanctions, they could have a significant impact on restricting its procurement network.[17] The perception was that sanctions were not enough to change the strategic calculations of Iranian officials without viable military threats.[18] During Trump’s tenure in office, all the agencies affiliated to the IRGC, manufacturing, financial, scientific, and services sectors linked to the missile program, all the agencies and individuals who were involved in human rights violations in Iran according to the US, and the subagencies of the Supreme Leader of Iran’s office, were placed on the sanctions list. By urging regional governments to dramatically increase data collection, maritime and border security, and ship inspections, Trump forced them to cooperate and remain committed to Iranian sanctions.[19] In parallel to this policy, the Trump administration reduced its dependence on oil from West Asia in order to force these countries to accept US pressures with a more actively aggressive literature.

Despite all the complexities and endless efforts by the Trump administration, the US was unable to bring Iran to its knees. By imposing these sanctions, the US was in fact trying to create a rift in the political structure of the IR of Iran and widen socioeconomic gaps among the people. But this only led to failure due to the methodological inconsistencies in sanctions.



The methodological examination of the impact of economic sanctions during the Trump era demonstrated how he tried to attain long-term, strategic goals in Iran with the help of sanctions. The model Trump used to confront Iran was a modern, progressive model of economic sanctions used in the Reagan era against the Soviet Union. Although Trump tried to use the carrot and stick strategy as leverage in order to strengthen the fifth column in the country, he was still unable to reach his main goal. Certain observers believe that if Trump had been reelected to the White House for a second term, he would have adopted an even more aggressive policy towards Iran. But it seems that four years of comprehensive unilateral sanctions against Iran were already losing their impact. Rather than being based on objective realities, Trump’s sanctions policy mostly relied on talk and the media, trying to portray the Iranian situation as being grim and painting a dark future. Hence, it seems that even if the Trump administration had remained in office and further maximized its political and economic pressures, a change in the political discourse of the Iranian government would have sealed the faith of his destructive and subversive efforts.












[11] Ibid




[15]. Ibid