Have US Sanctions Against Iran and North Korea Failed?

Iran and North Korea are once again taking center stage in American politics as US President Donald Trump intends to proceed with issuing an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iranians linked to his country’s energy industry, despite key European nations warning that he does not have the legal power to do so.

The President has declared that anyone trading arms with Iran will remain subject to sanctions beyond October, the date the embargo was due to be lifted.

Suspected North Korean Money Laundering

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of sanctions is being questioned after NBC News obtained a trove of confidential bank documents which reveal how North Korea moves illicit cash across borders despite international sanctions to block Pyongyang’s access to the global financial system.

The suspected laundering by North Korea-linked organizations totaled more than $174.8 million over several years, with transactions approved by American banks like JPMorgan Chase and the Bank of New York Mellon.

During a time when Trump is keen to avoid war with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the US President has resorted to sanctions as a method of economic combat with the leaders of the two rogue states.

North Korea Could Be Building up its Military Arsenal

Trump has also used sanctions as a means of persuasion to force Rouhani and Kim back to the negotiating table. Throughout the first term of his presidency, Trump’s sanctions have failed to convince the Iranian and North Korean leaders to negotiate new peace agreements that would lead to a reduction of US sanctions, in exchange for the gradual end of Pyongyang’s and Tehran’s nuclear programs.

The Daily Mail reports that South Korea’s incoming military chief Won In-choul is monitoring developments in North Korea, after satellite photos have revealed a flurry of activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard where Pyongyang builds submarines. This could be the first time that the country’s regime will showcase its largest missiles since 2018.

With only less than two months before a presidential election, it is unlikely that Trump will achieve a landmark deal with North Korea to convince voters that he is the man who can tackle Kim.

Sanctions Can’t Do Everything

When President Obama issued fresh sanctions on Iran in July 2010, Nicholas Burns, the most senior professional US diplomat in the Bush administration, said they failed because countries like China ignored them. Yet the former president was able to eventually persuade the EU, Russia and China to support his 2015 Iran deal.

The BBC’s Jonathan Marcus argued that sanctions can only work if they are universally applied. This is the issue that Trump faces – no other nation is following his lead on Iran or North Korea, mostly because he has fallen out with the nations involved in the 2015 Iran deal. If the US President wins November’s election, he must persuade his country’s allies to follow his lead on Iran and North Korea.

Victor Cha, who was the director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, said Trump needs China’s help to tackle Jong-un as Beijing supports Pyongyang’s economy. Tensions between Washington and Beijing are only likely to escalate in the future, which means the two nations are unlikely to cooperate on peace in North Korea.

Trump Can’t Solve These Problems on His Own

Given Pyongyang’s recent problems regarding flooding and the economic effects of the coronavirus, it appears that the only way to defeat North Korea now is by hoping that its regime collapses, which means Trump could deploy more sanctions in the future to cripple Kim.

Trump bragged that he will ‘have a deal with Iran within four weeks’ of his re-election, and to do so he must persuade his allies to support a deal that cuts US sanctions in exchange for the gradual end of Tehran’s nuclear program, as outlined by French President Emmanuel Macron last October. Considering the US’s allies refused to support Washington over its latest announcement on sanctions against Iran, it remains questionable as to whether they would support such a deal.

If sanctions are a means to an end, then Trump has failed to deploy them effectively against Iran. North Korea’s money laundering scheme proves they are finding ways to break their own US sanctions. To end the threat that Iran and North Korea pose to Washington, Trump needs to be more imaginative.