The West wants more sanctions on Iran. But do they even work?

In the wake of Iran's attack on Israel, the West wants to levy additional sanctions on Iran. However, over the years, their effect has been limited as Tehran found ways to circumvent them.

The West wants more sanctions on Iran. But do they even work?

In recent years, the default position for Western leaders whenever they find themselves involved in a new standoff with Iran is to hit the Islamic Republic with a new round of sanctions.

For the better part of two decades, successive Western governments have been looking to curb Iran’s destabilising influence in the Middle East and beyond by imposing various sanctions that are designed to limit the Iranian regime’s activities.

Most of the sanctions currently in place against Tehran have been taken in response to Iran’s nuclear programme, which many Western governments believe is ultimately aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

As a consequence, severe restrictions have been placed on Iran’s ability to access technology and material that might be used to aid its nuclear development, while a range of economic sanctions—including imposing limits on Iran’s ability to export oil—have been implemented in response to Iran’s continuing work on its uranium enrichment programme.

In recent months, the sanctions regime against Iran has been strengthened even further, especially by the US, after Iranian-backed militias have been accused of attacking US forces in Syria and Iraq in the wake of the 7 October attacks.

The UK, too, has adopted a more robust approach to Tehran after British security officials uncovered a number of Iranian plots to kill or kidnap Iranian opposition figures residing in the UK.

Seven senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and one Iranian organisation were added to the UK’s sanctions list in January over claims they were involved in threats to kill journalists on British soil.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that, following Iran’s decision to launch its first direct attack against Israel since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Western leaders are once more looking at new ways to punish Iranian aggression with a new round of sanctions.

For nearly two decades, successive Western governments have been looking to curb Iran's destabilising influence in the Middle East by imposing various sanctions.

Dispelled notions

Any notion that the West was seeking to adopt a neutral role in the long-running confrontation between Iran and Israel was dispelled after the US, UK, and France participated in a joint military operation to destroy the combined barrage of more than 300 drones and missiles that Iran fired at Israel on Saturday night.

Even though Tehran insisted it was justified in launching the attack in retaliation for an attack on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus on 1 April, which killed several senior IRGC commanders and has been blamed on the Israelis, Israel's Western allies had no hesitation in providing military support for Israel once it became clear that Iran was preparing to retaliate.

The fact that so many Western countries were prepared to respond militarily to the Iranian attack certainly highlights Iran's deepening isolation from the West, which has accelerated significantly since Iranian-backed Hamas militants launched the most devastating terrorist attack in Israel's history on 7 October.

And while both Washington and London have made it clear they are keen the standoff between Israel and Iran does not escalate further, they are also leading calls for further sanctions to be implemented against Iran—both in retaliation for its attack on Israel, as well as Iran's continued involvement in supporting militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which are designated as terrorist organisations in many Western countries.

Expanded sanctions

In particular, the US and Britain want sanctions against Tehran over its support of Russia's war in Ukraine expanded to include drone and missile deliveries to Iran's Middle East proxies.

Speaking at a meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Italy this week, British Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said a new round of sanctions was necessary to counter Iran's "malign activity", insisting that the Iranians "need to be given a clear and unequivocal message by the G7."

In Washington, meanwhile, the Biden administration is coming under intense pressure from Republicans to scrap $10bn in sanctions relief for Iran, which critics argue has freed resources and enabled Iran to fund its proxies across the Middle East and step up its nuclear weapons programme.  

Limits of sanctions

The only problem with the West's reliance on sanctions as a means for tackling Iran is that, despite Western efforts to isolate the Iranian regime, Tehran has managed to develop sophisticated methods of circumventing the various sanctions imposed on it.

Despite sanctions, Iran is exporting more oil than at any time for the past six years, giving its economy a $35bn-a-year boost.

The limitations of the West's attempts to cripple the Iranian economy with sanctions can be seen in the latest figures, which show that Iran is presently exporting more oil than at any time for the past six years, giving its economy a $35bn-a-year boost.

On average, Tehran sold an average of 1.56 million barrels a day during the first three months of the year, almost all of it to China, making it the highest level Iran's oil exports have reached since 2018.

Iran's success in exporting its crude oil certainly underscores the difficulties the US, the UK, and the EU will face as they seek to build up pressure on Tehran following its missile and drone attack on Israel.

As Fernando Ferreira, head of geopolitical risk service at the Rapidan Energy Group in the US, explained in a recent interview with London's Financial Times,  "The Iranians have mastered the art of sanctions circumvention. If the Biden administration is really going to have an impact, it has to shift the focus to China." 

Washington is certainly under no illusions about the limited effect sanctions are having on the Iranian economy, with US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen admitting earlier this week that Iran "clearly" continued to export its oil and that there was "more to do" to curb the trade. 

There is certainly no indication from Tehran that it feels pressured by the prospect of further Western sanctions. As Iran's oil minister Javad Owji remarked recently, while Iran's enemies wanted to stop its exports, "today, we can export oil anywhere we want, and with minimal discounts."

In Tehran, meanwhile, the state Tasnim news agency reported on Wednesday that the country's oil industry had found ways to get around sanctions, adding that, since its main customer was China, it was largely shielded from Western pressure.

If that is the case, then the West will need to have a serious rethink about the implementation of its sanctions policy if it is really serious about holding Tehran to account for its unprecedented attack on Israel.

font change