U.S. sanctions against Russia and Iran, and their role in Caucasus geopolitics

By | Rachel Brooks

November 12, 2020 

The normalization process is far from over in the Caucasus region, even as one of its most heated conflicts, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which resulted in Azerbaijani reclamation of its lands, comes to an on-paper ceasefire. The closing chapter of the Second Nagorno Karabakh conflict has raised a frenzy of questions about the region’s future. At the center of this discussion is the presence of Russian forces deployed to the region, an essential occupation in the minds of all those native to the region. In previous eras, the Russian presence in the Caucasus region went undisputed, but in today’s polar shift of policy, the presence of Russia in the region may not be as cut and dry as would appear. 

U.S.-Russia sanctions over Ukraine occupation

In 2020, the Trump administration may be an active point of imposing stiff sanctions on its bitter rivals in Eurasia. Russia and Iran are the most bitter of the rivals the U.S. has in the region, as has been noted by FAS documentation in the Congressional Research Service archives. Citing the records, the U.S. took incentives to stiffly sanction Russia in 2020. 

The report, published on January 17, 2020, details the precise course of action the United States took against Russian rivalry interests as of the outset of 2020. 

“Sanctions are a central element of U.S. policy to counter and deter malign Russian behavior. The United States has imposed sanctions on Russia mainly in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, to reverse and deter further Russian aggression in Ukraine, and to deter Russian aggression against other countries,” states the CRS report. 

The report went on to explain specific details of the sanctions the U.S. imposed upon Russia in response to Ukrainian occupation. 

“Sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are based mainly on four executive orders (EOs) that President Obama issued in 2014. That year, Congress also passed and President Obama signed into law two acts establishing sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014 (SSIDES; P.L. 113-95/H.R. 4152) and the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 (UFSA; P.L. 113-272/H.R. 5859).” 

Before 2020, the Trump administration had laid out specific legal acts that would detract from the Russian occupation of Ukraine. This was known as the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017. The Congressional Research Service laid out the particulars for this act and its influence on Caucasus policy. 

“In 2017, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017 (CRIEEA; P.L. 115-44/H.R. 3364, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act [CAATSA], Title II). This legislation codified Ukraine-related and cyber-related EOs, strengthened sanctions authorities initiated in Ukraine-related EOs and legislation, and identified several new targets for sanctions. It also established a congressional review of any action the President takes to ease or lift a variety of sanctions.”  

The text of the act notes illegal Russian occupation in nations besides Ukraine. 

“This bill declares that the United States supports the “Stimson Doctrine” and thus does not recognize territorial changes effected by force, including the illegal invasions and occupations of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Transnistria,” read the act, see Congress.gov. 

“The bill: (1) authorizes FY2018-FY2019 assistance for the Countering Russian Influence Fund; and (2) prescribes fund use, including assisting those North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or European Union (EU) countries that are vulnerable to Russian influence or aggression to enhance their energy security, lessen dependence on Russian energy sources, and protect their infrastructure and electoral mechanisms from cyber attack.”

The bill was sponsored by the Democratic Senator of Maryland Benjamin L. Cardin. The act and the sanctions imposed were primarily concerned with Russia’s illegal occupations as well as malicious cyber activity.


Because this act was written before the Russian peacekeeper presence at the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is not explicitly stated what provisions from NATO the United States would allocate to combating illegal occupation of the territory. Russia’s imposed military presence in the border region between Armenia and Azerbaijan has come as a direct response to its mitigated peace process of bitter hostilities that flared between Armenia and Azerbaijan as of September 27. 

U.S. sanctions over the Iranian regime 

The U.S. likewise has imposed strong sanctions against Iran. Iran, with its proximity to the Caucasus, poses a geopolitical dilemma in the region. To prevent the Islamic Republic from gaining a foothold in regions of national interest, the United States has imposed repeated sanctions against the Iranian regime. 

“Today, the United States is sanctioning members of an illicit Iranian procurement network. We remain firmly committed to countering any activity that threatens our national security. Our message is clear: If you do business with Iranian proliferators, you risk U.S. sanctions,” said U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo on November 10. 

FAS records have kept a frequent record of U.S. sanctions against Iran in recent months. Sanctions included a ban on the U.S. and Iran trade, as well as many levied sanctions aimed at discouraging Iran’s behavior of extremist campaigning across the world theater. 

 The Caucasus has observed the concern of Iranian extremism campaigns through the proof that Armenia recruited insurgents in its informal forces during recent fighting with Azerbaijan. As the war comes to a Russian-mitigated close, and Russia has effectively occupied the region, the Armenian informal forces are projected to develop into radical extremism groups. Iran, as a strategic ally to Russia, and discouraging its internal uprisings, could be drawn into the region tactically in support of Russia and Russian “peacekeeping” efforts against the protested uprising. 

The potential for a stronger and lasting Russian influence in this locale of the Caucasus is supported by the extreme political instability of Armenia in the wake of the cessation of formal hostilities. The war is over, but the fighting over the territory is regrouping. 

Question of administration 

The U.S. continues the arduous process of election legitimizing. While the mainstream media has projected Democratic candidate Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election, the legal verdict has not been reached. Under American law, the incumbent president is within Constitutional rights to challenge the electoral process in court, and demand recounts and proceedings if irregularities are detected. The issue of irregularity processing has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, which disrupted normal American political processes. For this reason, those who have called the electoral verdict have done so prematurely. 

A premature election verdict can prove problematic for the U.S. policy moving forward. There is both the question of a slowing down of due process in American policy toward the Caucasus and the issues of a choppy regime shift, should there be one. 

On November 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in a press conference that he believed there would be a transition to a second term for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump. While he directed further questions to the U.S. Department of Justice, Pompeo expressed confidence that the current administration’s legal challenges of the electoral process had strong case grounds, and that Trump’s legal battle for his presidency would be successful. If there is no regime change, there will be little policy change toward the sanctioning of Russia in the Caucasus. By contrast, a Biden presidency is expected to make significant changes to many of the Trump administration’s policies, and this casts a bit of uncertainty on a projected Biden presidency’s Caucasus and sanctioning policy. As former vice president of the Obama administration, Biden is likely to adopt many similar policies to the Obama administration that Trump actively moved to overturn. 

A protracted legal battle for the U.S. presidency may significantly backlog the U.S. process for involvement in normalization efforts of recent Caucasus conflicts, and Russia’s illegal occupation across the territories of the region. As the U.S. delays its response to the issue, Russia has the advantage of the time to pursue interests negative to the western agenda in the region. 

There is likewise the issue of a final result of the anticipated protracted legal battle. That is if either side cannot accept the ultimate outcome of election review and retrial. Both the incumbent president and the currency projected winning candidate have claimed victory that they will prove. Both have stated that there will be a smooth transition to their administration from 2021 onward. 

If however, the bitterness of American politics, accented by a final verdict in court, protracts the process of power transition even further, this will reflect on foreign policy. It may lessen the availability of U.S. commitment to NATO efforts and may delay prioritized efforts against Russian advancement in the region. 

Moving forward 

Moving forward, the western presence as a mediator of the continued regional instability and international law violations, may be denigrated. A U.S. position in the region, even one of indirect enforcement of international law, is a vital influence on a lasting solution to the Caucasus region instability. The biases of western influence in this regional diplomacy may compound the process, as western domestic politics influence global distraction from the issues of the region. 

To bring lasting peace to the region, international law will need to be evaluated, and the mediators of international law will require an audit of their roles in the normalization process. Otherwise, regional conflicts, even while being recognized as ceased on paper, will continue to develop in the region in complex loopholes of the diplomatic and international legal system.