In May, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as “the Iran nuclear deal.” Since then, Trump directed American officials to resume comprehensive sanctions on Iran and to pressure other states and companies to abide by the American sanctions. Companies continuing to trade with Iran risk being blacklisted from doing business with any American banks or entities, leading most to cut ties with Iran even as European Union governments try to maintain the JCPOA.
On one level, the return to sanctions looks unfair on Iran, which was apparently complying with all the terms of the JCPOA. The US unilaterally abrogated an agreement it spent a lot of effort and political capital negotiating over a period of years. Iranians might justifiably ask “what else are we supposed to do?”
For Trump and “Iran hawks” in his cabinet, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, the return to sanctions, the more confrontational language, and posturing towards Iran is about more than the nuclear issue, however. Although they felt the JCPOA did not sufficiently constrain Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons, they appeared even more concerned about Iran’s growing strength and improved economic prospects following the end of sanctions.
For such hawks, Iran’s moves against US allies and interests in the region – from proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to threats against Israel and American business interests and support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad – could not be adequately countered with the JCPOA in place.
In short, the regime in Tehran remains an enemy of Washington and the JCPOA prevented a concerted strategy short of war for sufficiently weakening that enemy. The fear of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, although real to a certain point, thus also offers a convenient excuse to isolate Iran and chip away at the regime’s power. Tehran’s atrocious human rights record, responsible for around half of the world’s executions of political dissidents and very repressive social and civil rights policies, also helps justify this effort.
As the first round of renewed US sanctions against Iran came into effect this week, Iran’s economy was already in a precarious position. The rial lost over half its value against the US dollar over the past few months. Iranian engagements in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere, along with serious corruption and rent seeking by institutionalized actors such as the al-Quds Revolutionary Guards, have been taking their toll. Protests by average Iranians angry about lack of jobs, services, the plummeting rial, inflation, and generally poor living conditions continue to flare up regularly. When heavier US sanctions targeting Iran’s oil industry begin on November 4, 2018, the country’s economic problems will worsen further still.
This is clearly the intent of policy makers in Washington. As one official told the Atlantic magazine last week, “The regime’s systematic mismanagement of its economy, and its decision to prioritize a revolutionary agenda over the welfare of its people has put Iran into a long-term economic tailspin. Widespread government corruption and extensive government interference in the economy by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps make doing business in Iran a losing proposition. Foreign direct investors in Iran never know whether they are facilitating commerce or terrorism.”
For a population that has been living under the Islamic Republic since 1979, these heightened economic problems will only exacerbate many people’s weariness of the regime. With around 88 percent of Iran’s population under 54 years of age, few now have memories of the Shah’s regime or anything other than the mullahs’ rule. Calls for a change in government will predictably gain steam as a result of the hardships and desire for something new.
The hopes of Trump and his advisors seem to center on weakening Iran from the outside and thereby heightening the internal pressure for regime change. While many claim such a strategy will never work, pointing to the many hardships the regime endured during the long Iran-Iraq war, others are not so sure. The 1980-88 conflict happened right after the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah, and a united populace rallied to defend against a foreign invasion, while the revolution’s promises remained fresh.
In contrast, the Islamic revolution’s promises to Iranians hardly seem fresh or new today. As long as the United States and others avoid physically threatening Iranians, making clear instead that they hold the people in high regard, then the regime’s ability to deflect dissent outwards towards a foreign aggressor will remain limited. Mounting discontent could eventually bring regime change under such circumstance, or at least contain and sap some of the Iranian regime’s power in the meantime.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.