The U.S. first imposed sanctions on Iran in November 1979 after Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy and took diplomats hostage. I remember that in 1995 the Bill Clinton administration issued executive orders preventing U.S. companies from investing in the Iranian energy sector and banned U.S. trade with and investment within Iran. The U.S. Congress passed a law next year requiring the administration impose sanctions on foreign companies investing more than $20 million a year in Iran's energy sector.
The U.N. Security Council's sanctions on Iran starting in 2006 only included trade in nuclear-related materials and technology and freezing the assets of individuals and companies involved with nuclear activities. But, during the George W. Bush term, the U.S. imposed the toughest sanctions unilaterally against Iran since it first imposed them almost 30 years ago, for "supporting terrorists." Those sanctions cut more than 20 organizations associated to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps from the U.S. financial system.
After Barack Obama took office as president in January 2009, the U.S. continued to impose new sanctions on Iran. In the summer of 2010, Congress imposed additional unilateral sanctions targeting Iran's energy and banking sectors. Also, penalties are brought for the companies that supply Iran with refined petroleum products worth over a certain amount. Israel was quite satisfied with the U.S.' further pressure on Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the biggest rival of Iran in the region, was quietly celebrating with them.
For the U.N. the issue has always been about Iran's uranium enrichment, however, from the point of the U.S., it was not only that; Iran's nuclear development program was just a tool to legitimize its pressure on Iran. In the meantime, Israel, which is widely believed to have been the sixth country in the world to develop nuclear weapons but has never admitted that, was not even asked to let in international nuclear inspectors.
In 2010, Brazil and Turkey took a bold initiative and brokered a deal with Iran over its nuclear program which may have averted a global crisis then. It was a highly positive development for everybody – except for those in Washington and Tel Aviv. Not immediately, but in time, both Brazil and Turkey were going to pay the price for such a move. At the same time, the U.S. blacklisted more Iranian banks for transactions with previously banned institutions. While the U.S. media systematically demonized former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Obama repeatedly threatened Iran with war as well.
Following the footsteps of the U.S., the EU also prohibited the creation of joint ventures with enterprises in Iran engaged in oil and natural gas industries. While trade of equipment and technology used for natural gas production was banned, the import and export of arms were also prohibited. In 2011, the Obama administration turned U.S. pressure on Iran into a joint effort, and the U.S., the U.K. and Canada declared bilateral sanctions. As Iran's economy has been dominated by oil and gas exports, which have accounted for more than 80 percent of export earnings, the U.S. was hitting below the belt again and again. It was not only about the regime; the Iranian people were really suffering, and no one in the West cared about them.
In 2012, the Obama administration dealt a deathblow to Iran with the support of the EU. Starting with imposing sanctions on Iran's central bank, and further isolating Iran from the rest of the world, on June 2012, it banned the world's banks from completing oil transactions with Iran, exempting just seven countries including Turkey from economic sanctions in return for their cutting imports of Iranian oil. The EU also banned Iranian oil exports. As a result, Iran's currency fell to a new record low against the U.S. dollar, losing about 80 per cent of its value compared to the previous year.
While the sanctions on Iran were tightened day by day, the Syrian civil war in the region was also worsening. Iran-backed militias were already on the ground fighting for the Assad regime, and Obama was threatening the Assad regime every day. In 2013, Assad crossed Obama's "red line" when the Eastern Ghouta chemical massacre, which killed 1,400 Syrians, was perpetrated. The U.S. president was on TV every day talking about military intervention against the Assad regime and looked as if he was about to launch up to 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Damascus. The whole world was waiting with bated breath, but he suddenly and surprisingly announced that the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement to disarm Syria of chemical weapons. He also added that they also started negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal at the end of the same speech. It would have really been a peaceful act if U.S. President Obama and his Western allies would have pushed Iran to get out of Syria and to stop aggressive and expansionist policies in the Middle East. Assad continued to use chemical weapons more frequently. Obviously, Iran surrendered in order not to lose Syria, and Obama left Iraq and Syria in the hands of Iran, causing more and more civilian deaths.
A nuclear deal framework was reached in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries changing the whole geopolitical balance in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia openly stated that they felt betrayed by the U.S. and increased their lobby against Obama and the Democrats. However, it was Turkey, the NATO ally of the U.S., which suffered most because of Obama's bargain. Turkey was also the only one country in the region that stood up against the U.S. sanctions on Iran; however, Tehran never cared about the past efforts of its friends once it got the deal.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been paying debts to Israel and Saudi Arabia for their support with his Middle East policies since he took office, has now unleashed the toughest sanctions ever on Iran, and brought the old geopolitics back. Today the question is if the Trump administration seeks a new deal with Iran on harder terms as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo implied, or will continue to serve to what Tel Aviv and Riyadh demand. There are no clues yet.