The Trump administration has imposed sanctions at a record pace of about three times a day during the president’s tenure: a series of measures targeting companies, individuals and even oil tankers linked to Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela and Russia.
President-elect Joe Biden’s team promises a top-down review of sanctions operations, but don’t expect their watch to slow down significantly.
Roughly seven weeks before the inauguration, Biden’s choices for senior administration positions make it clear that economic restrictions on countries will remain a vital tool, even if they don’t like everything in the way Trump has used them.
Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo, chosen by Biden to be the No. 2 official in the Treasury, plans to review the functioning of the Treasury’s Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Unit, or TFI, said people familiar with the matter. This includes an assessment of current programs, staffing and budgets, depending on the individual.
Yet the belief that sanctions remain crucial underscores how essential they have become in how the United States conducts its foreign policy, using both economic and military might to get what it wants abroad. , even when close allies disagree. And even if Biden wants to distance himself from Trump’s policies, pundits and observers say he’s likely to maintain Trump’s aggressive approach.
In their determination to take an ‘America First’ approach to geopolitical crises, Trump’s team has pioneered new forms of economic coercion, mixing mundane sanctions designations with tariffs, export controls, and secondary sanctions to punish friends and foes.
“They used these tools, these tariffs, these export controls as a punch against people like China and others,” said Adam Smith, former senior adviser in the US Department’s sanctions unit. Trésor and now a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Trump attacked NATO ally Turkey for his detention of an American pastor and threatened to punish Germany for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Ignoring the warning that the Chinese economy was too large and too closely tied to that of the United States, Trump repeatedly sanctioned Chinese officials and companies, including 14 high-level lawmakers, on December 7. economy, without the help of European partners.
“We have never seen an administration so creatively use these various tools in a seemingly coordinated fashion,” Smith said.
Surge in Iran
Under Trump, the administration has taken more than 3,900 separate sanctions, according to data collected by Gibson Dunn, with a sharp increase in 2018, when the administration reintroduced numerous sanctions against Iran after its withdrawal from the nuclear deal. of 2015 supported by allies including the UK, France and Germany. No previous administration had exceeded 700 sanctions per year.
“I am very proud of the role of the Treasury and I have played in an integrated manner in terms of national security and foreign policy,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday, when asked about the sanctions policy. He cited Iran as an area in which he believes the administration has been “very effective”, although it has not forced the Islamic Republic to return to the negotiating table.
“If we didn’t have sanctions, they would use tens of billions of dollars to support terrorist activity, further missile development and other bad activities in the region,” Mnuchin said.
Biden’s team, reluctant to address political issues before taking office, has been vague about what Trump sanctions it will maintain or lift, although the president-elect has called for a return to the Iran nuclear deal, this which would require a relaxation of sanctions in a way. In a CNN article in September, however, Biden said his administration “would continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights violations, its support for terrorism and the ballistic missile program.”
“We must also remain focused on the critical role of the Treasury Department in protecting our national security,” Adeyemo said when his appointment was announced on December 1. “This includes using our sanctions regime to hold bad actors accountable.
One of the challenges Biden will face is that US sanctions have become so extensive and complicated that they are more difficult to enforce or manage without risking serious repercussions on the US economy.
“What you see are several large economies targeted by sanctions,” said Justine Walker, head of global sanctions and risks at the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists. “The visibility of the industry is so much greater, and I think this is a potential problem.”
Critics say the Trump administration has used sanctions too directly and indiscriminately, using them as a catch-all for any foreign policy issue.
Additionally, the Treasury Sanctions Unit has been stripped of key personnel, starting at the top. The unit has not had an Under Secretary since Sigal Mandelker stepped down in October 2019.
A number of officials also left the unit during Trump’s tenure, even as the use of economic measures increased in volume and sophistication. Adeyemo plans to resolve personnel issues and consider increasing the unit’s budget, the people said, assuming it is confirmed by the Senate.
Generally speaking, Biden’s incoming team argues that if they use sanctions, they will do so in concert with others, not against them. Two countries of focus will be Russia, where the new administration could target oligarchs allies of President Vladimir Putin, and China, where the United States under Trump has imposed sanctions on its own rather than working with other countries that have similar interests.
“What I expect to see is a comprehensive strategy that looks more towards multilateral alliances and partnerships,” Adam Szubin, former Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said at the meeting. ‘a National Security Institute conference on December 1. , you will see an effort to stand on a united front and call on China to act where it is needed. “
The US approach under Trump was more hostile, the argument being that companies would go online whether they wanted to or not, because access to the US financial system was too valuable to them. Complaints that the overuse of financial penalties would undermine the dollar’s primacy were quickly dismissed.
As Biden prepares to take office, there is no more important sanctions target than Iran. According to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the United States has targeted 1,500 people and entities in Iran in 77 separate rounds of sanctions, which is almost half of the administration’s sanctions.
“We have deprived the regime, in their own words, of some $ 70 billion for terrorism,” Pompeo said at a conference last week. “We know our campaign is working because now the Iranians are desperately signaling their willingness to return to the negotiating table for sanctions relief.”
Sanctions experts say that while the Trump administration’s sanctions were often effective, they sometimes seemed to serve as public relations more than sound economic policies, which they say they don’t expect to see from the Biden administration.
“I don’t think they will reduce the sanctions, they will reduce the misuse of sanctions,” said Daniel Fried, former ambassador, deputy secretary and sanctions coordinator for the State Department under the Democratic and Republican administrations. “Reduce the use of sanctions as a purely messaging or media cycle management tool – sanctions because you want to sound tough.”