US action more symbolic than punishing, say experts

US President Donald Trump (pictured) signed an executive order imposing new "hard-hitting" sanctions on Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. PHOTO: NY TIMES

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump's latest round of sanctions against Iran underscores his preference for using economic pressure rather than military force.

But his specific targeting on Monday of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is likely to be more symbolic than punishing, given the leader's lack of mainstream financial assets.

On Monday, Mr Trump signed an executive order imposing new "hard-hitting" sanctions on Ayatollah Khamenei. At the same time, the President called on Iran's leaders to negotiate a new nuclear deal to replace the 2015 international pact he pulled the US out of last year.

The sanctions come just days after Iran downed a high-flying US Navy drone over the Gulf. Last Thursday night, Mr Trump ordered, and then abruptly cancelled, a retaliatory missile strike against Iran. He said that the strike, which could have killed 150 Iranians, would have been disproportionate.

"(Trump's) weapon of choice is this economic cudgel," said Mr Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to four countries. "That is how he wants to look tough, and it has been popular with his base. He is not interested at all in war. He is interested in economic warfare."

The sanctions aim to restrict the Supreme Leader's "access to key financial resources and support", Mr Trump told reporters. "These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran's increasingly provocative actions," he said.

However, experts said it was unlikely the new sanctions would have a significant impact. The Trump administration, following the Obama government before it and the United Nations, has already placed numerous punitive measures aimed at strangling the Iranian economy. These include restrictions on Teheran's production and export of oil, its most important source of income, and attempts to block other countries from buying Iranian crude.

"These are a very symbolic slap in the face... (that will have) no impact whatsoever," said Mr Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

Sanctions normally cut off a person's access to US-based assets, but the Ayatollah is not thought to possess any. The opaque Iranian government operates largely outside the mainstream global financial systems that the US can control.

"Supreme Leader Khamenei does not travel abroad, and has no bank account under his name," said Mr Farshad Qourbanpour, a Teheran-based analyst. "This is just psychological warfare." One disruption, he said, would be donations from Shi'ite communities abroad to the Ayatollah's office.

In his comments to reporters on Monday, Mr Trump reiterated that he would like to meet Iran's leaders to draw up a new agreement to curtail the country's nuclear weapons programme. "I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us, but that doesn't mean we are going to show it in the future," he said.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said sanctions would also target five naval commanders who the administration believes executed the drone attack. In addition, he said, sanctions later this week will blacklist Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the public face of Teheran's government.

For the administration to blacklist Mr Zarif while Mr Trump also speaks of wanting to talk to Iranian leaders sends contradictory messages.

"Those that are encouraging this move have a very clear goal in mind: to make diplomacy between Washington and Teheran impossible," said Ms Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. "Trump's offer for negotiations rings hollow when Iran's top diplomat is going to be sanctioned."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2019, with the headline US action more symbolic than punishing, say experts. Subscribe