“I think it is a very unwise move. In part, Trump had to re-establish credibility that he is tough on Iran with those, both in the US but especially in the (Persian) Gulf region, who thought his aborted attack last week was sending a dangerous sign of weakness,” Riccardo Alcaro, a senior fellow with the Transatlantic Program of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), told Tasnim.
Riccardo Alcaro was a nonresident fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe. He is an expert in transatlantic political and security relations with a focus on US-European cooperation in Europe’s neighboring regions, including the Middle East and North Africa, Iran and the Persian Gulf, the Sahel, Eastern Europe, and Russia.
Following is the full text of the interview.
Tasnim: US President Donald Trump on Monday announced new sanctions on Iran as part of his pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. They target the office of Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran's foreign minister and senior commanders of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). What is your take on the sanctions?
Alcaro: I think it is a very unwise move. In part, Trump had to re-establish credibility that he is tough on Iran with those, both in the US but especially in the (Persian) Gulf region, who thought his aborted attack last week was sending a dangerous sign of weakness. But if that was the only purpose, cyberattacks and other forms of responses could have worked. Sanctioning Iran's supreme leader is a deliberately insulting move that sends the signal that a deal can only happen if Iran capitulates to US demands - whether Pompeo's 12 points or Trump's 1 point (a new nuclear deal), I can't say. Very difficult for a US president to make compromises with a foreign leader who's been targeted by US sanctions.
Tasnim: Trump and other senior US officials have repeatedly said that Washington is ready to talk to Iran about a new nuclear deal without any preconditions. It seems the Trump administration, by imposing new sanctions on Tehran, is facing political confusion. What do you think? Do you believe that the administration is closing the path to a diplomatic solution with Iran?
Alcaro: The party of maximum pressure - National Security Advisor Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo in particular - has apparently re-asserted its control over America's Iran policy. By sanctioning (Ayatollah) Khamenei, Trump is basically undercutting any real possibility of genuine talks over de-escalation measures, let alone negotiation over a new nuclear deal. It seems the administration is trying hard to goad Iran into making further steps that can justify an even more confrontational approach. The problem is, Iran may think that Trump's aversion to war will eventually force him to back down, and in order to do that Iran may take further steps that the US sees as provocations. It's a very dangerous game that may end up in conflict.
Tasnim: As you know, most of Iran’s economy has been already targeted by earlier US penalties and, in fact, there is not much left for Washington to target. Do you believe that it is just a theatrical move and that sanctions diplomacy no longer works in face of Iran?
Alcaro: The one-million-dollar question is indeed: how long can Iran go on under this unprecedented level of pressure? If Iran finds a way to cope with the US financial siege and stabilizes economically, 'strategic patience' - meaning waiting for a different US administration while keeping the moral high ground and insisting that the Europeans stick to the JCPOA commitments - emerges again as the most sensible policy option. If, on the contrary, the economic situation becomes unsustainable, Iran may feel compelled to retaliate aggressively, and we're back on the possible escalation dynamic towards military conflict I've just mentioned.
Tasnim: The new sanctions came after Iran last week shot down a US spy drone that had ventured into Iran’s airspace. Trump told reporters that the sanctions had nothing to do with the downing of the drone. It seems, however, that the sanctions were imposed in response to the shootdown. What are your thoughts on this?
Alcaro: Look, the US had to respond somehow to Iran shooting down a drone, which the US insists was flying in international airspace. Some form of retaliation was always supposed to come. But as I said the new sanctions - particularly the targeting of (Ayatollah) Khamenei - seem to me more a response to those (especially in the (Persian) Gulf region) who have criticized Trump's decision to abort the attack than anything else.