People protest against executions and detentions in Iran, in front of the Iranian Permanent Mission to the UN in New York, US, on December 17. Photo: AFP
Florence Coumbe
Florence Coumbe

After uniting against Russia, the West is applying the same approach to Iran

  • Following the success of a swift collective response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western countries are now coordinating efforts to sanction Iran for human rights abuses
  • Lessons are being learned from the failure of slow and disjointed measures against Iran in the past
On December 14, the United Nations adopted a resolution to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the first time a state has been expelled from the body. The passing of this US-drafted resolution was described by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan as “another sign of the growing international consensus on Iran”.
Although “consensus” is perhaps an overstatement – there were eight votes against the resolution, including from Russia and China, and 16 abstentions, compared to 29 votes in favour – the move could be seen as the latest in a sequence of increasingly coordinated action against the Iranian regime that began in the wake of the killing of Jina (Mahsa) Amini.

Economic sanctions have been the primary tool deployed in this effort; just days after Amini’s death while in custody, on September 22, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Iran’s morality police, the body that had detained Amini, for violence against women. The UK followed suit on October 10, with the EU imposing sanctions a week later.

Subsequent months saw the adoption of additional sanctions against Iran by the US, UK and EU in response to Iran’s suppression of the protest movement that arose following Amini’s death. The timing and targets of these sanctions have tended to coincide, with US designations preceding similar measures by the UK and EU.
The development of a united Western front against Iran has been given further momentum by evidence of Iranian entities supplying the Russian military with drones for use in Ukraine.
This has entwined elements of the sanctions against Iran with the more comprehensive programme imposed on Russia since February. Indeed, Iran’s support for Russia’s war effort appears to have been a key factor in the international community’s willingness to take new actions against its leadership.
Member countries vote on the removal of Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women during a meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council in New York on December 14. Photo: AFP

In responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US sought to learn from perceived mistakes in the way measures were applied against Iran in the early 2000s, in what was a staggered and often disunited process.

The result was the almost simultaneous implementation of sanctions against entities deemed to be supporting Putin’s government by the EU, the UK, OFAC and other international allies, which far surpassed any action against Iran. Decisions concerning Russian oil and gas exports and the exclusion of key Russian banks from Swift were reached in a matter of months rather than years.

The question that might now be raised is whether this coordinated approach will be applied to international measures against the Iranian regime.

There have historically been significant discrepancies between the US and Europe with regards to their willingness to sanction Iran. These were most evident in 2018 when the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal that gave Iran sanctions relief in return for extensive restrictions on its nuclear programme.


Iran tests drones amid US concerns the aircraft could be used by Russia in its war against Ukraine

Iran tests drones amid US concerns the aircraft could be used by Russia in its war against Ukraine

The return to a more collective stance towards Iran is indicative of a shift in approach by the US. While Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA reflected his willingness to flout international consensus, his successor President Joe Biden has emphasised his focus on building a united front with key allies. He even prioritised negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear accord.

Despite months of such talks, the resurrection of the JCPOA looks increasingly unlikely, with Russia having played a destabilising role in the negotiations. Efforts by the EU to separately rebuild an economic relationship – notably via the trading vehicle INSTEX – have similarly floundered.

Considering these failings, and the international outcry over the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime, the return to consensus around new measures seems highly likely to continue. This approach is almost certain to benefit from the experience of collaboration in adopting sanctions against Russia.

Whether West’s sanctions on Russia are working is only part of the question

Consequently, in 2023 we may see a return to a consensus position in the West on Iran, recalling the convergence of approaches that first brought about the 2015 nuclear deal. The focus of this united position may not be Iran’s nuclear programme but rather the Iranian regime’s treatment of its own people.

Furthermore, as Iranian support for Russia puts further pressure on its relationship with the West, 2023 could see increasing focus on new measures designed to decisively weaken the regime, with, for the first time in almost a decade, a fully united group of Western powers behind them.

Florence Coumbe is an analyst of Middle East politics and security who has been working recently with investigations business Alaco Limited