On November 4 next year, Iran will mark 40 years since the Islamic revolution that turned a flawed but functioning monarchy into a perpetually insecure and struggling theocracy. But 2019 suddenly seems a long way off.
Ordinary Iranians can be forgiven if they are angry with the Trump administration for piling on the misery with its re-imposition of the whole gamut of pre-2015 sanctions. After all, most of them have got no hand in their regime’s “malign influence in the Middle East” that Washington says it seeks to curb.
The same, though, cannot be said about Iran’s rulers, who keep overestimating the power of bluster and bombast 39 years after harnessing it to turn popular sentiment against the Shah and bringing the curtain down on an era when the country was one of the West’s staunchest allies in the Middle East.
Now that the moment of reckoning has almost arrived, at stake is the fate of not just one of the world’s largest oil producers but also a nation of 81 million people.
With the latest round of US sanctions targeting Iran’s financial system and oil and shipping industries, on top of a weakening currency, hyperinflation and double-digit unemployment, the world’s eyes are naturally on what course of action Iran’s rulers opt for. Will they put the continuity of their expansionist geopolitical agenda ahead of a long-suffering population’s well-being, or the other way around?
The regime could draw a few lessons in statecraft from its chief opponent. The Trump administration has played its cards well by granting temporary waivers to eight importers of Iranian crude. Alas, the exemptions from penalties against purchases of Iranian oil are meant to give those countries time to find new suppliers, at a time when Iran’s international oil sales have already fallen by a third.
All other things being equal, a nightmare scenario could come true for Iran if its oil exports indeed plunge to zero, which is the Trump administration’s stated goal. Even so, few would hold their breath for a change of mentality in Tehran, so resistant the rulers remain to any tinkering with the theology that undergirded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ascent to power in 1979.
Up until the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections of November 2016, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle had little reason to worry about a dramatic reversal of fortune. By signing the nuclear agreement with the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China the previous year, Tehran had become confident Washington had no appetite for reinstating sanctions to counter its macho posturing in the Middle East.
While the Obama administration cannot be blamed for going all out for a deal without which a major Israel-Iran conflict then seemed imminent, the blunder it made was to make the withdrawal of existing sanctions conditional only on Tehran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear accord, even though the signs were all there of its deepening involvement in regional affairs.
As it turned out, the extra cash from oil sales began to pour into Iran’s coffers just as the Obama administration was beginning to put into practice the controversial theory that the US was a declining power and accordingly needed to shrink its footprint in the Middle East, when the need of the hour was actually to challenge and curtail Iranian and Russian ambitions in the region.
The rest is history. From Syria to Yemen, from Iraq to Lebanon, and from the Gaza Strip to Iranian Kurdistan, life has not been the same again for people who crave dignity, peace, economic opportunity and basic freedoms, not fiery speeches by militant politicians and foreordained election results, water shortages and power cuts, still less the sounds of barrel bombs and mortar shells.
Supporters of Iran argue, with some justification, that there is no evidence the Islamic republic has violated the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement, from which Trump withdrew in May, and that the other five signatories have chosen to remain in the deal.
It is also true that Israeli accusations against Iran – that it is flouting some of the agreement’s clauses and secretly working on weaponizing nuclear material – have not been backed by the IAEA, which, despite its limited resources, has access to Iran’s declared nuclear sites and suspect non-nuclear locations.
The issue, however, is no longer Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Between doing nothing to rein in an assertive Iran and standing by America’s nervous regional partners, the Trump administration has evidently chosen the riskier option.
It has done so presumably in the full knowledge that the charming and articulate foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Sharif, is not the only weapon in Iran’s arsenal. The country could also use the services of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the extra-territorial Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). “They are heavily invested in Syria, and the IRGC is not going anywhere soon,” Ryan Crocker, the veteran US diplomat, told The Wall Street Journal recently.
Other experts believe Iran’s strategy will be to wait out Trump’s term in office till 2020 or to restart nuclear activities in a limited way, in addition to reactivating its channels for circumventing sanctions through use of banks, middlemen and shipping companies with operations in friendly countries. An escalation of the proxy wars between Tehran and Riyadh and attacks on vulnerable regional partners of the US cannot be ruled out either.
Whatever route Iran’s rulers decide to take, they will have to walk a fine line between standing up to mounting US pressure and keeping a lid on anti-regime sentiments at home. Measures to provide relief to the poor and the needy and giving the central bank a freer hand in currency markets may not be enough to withstand the shock to the economy and the financial system as the sanctions begin to bite.
It is not all gloom and doom, however. The Iranian regime has an opponent it can do business with, a man who incidentally co-authored a book called “The Art of the Deal”. Its door to negotiations with Trump is wide open and the bridges with its Arab neighbors are far from burnt despite the bad blood. And it is certainly not written in the stars that mass emigration, civil unrest and state collapse are Iran’s inescapable destiny.
The US wants a comprehensive accord that will put a check on Iran’s ballistic-missile program and address its military activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon in accordance with the 12 demands issued by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, to Iran in a speech in May. The idea of renegotiating what seemed like a done deal may be anathema to Tehran, but as things stand, it does seem the opponent has the advantage of a far stronger hand.
Under the circumstances, to continue to maneuver only in the interests of its survival rather than in the best interests of all Iranians would be an act of supreme folly on the part of the regime in Tehran. Indeed, Iran’s rulers would have only themselves to blame if, come November 2019, celebrations to mark the Islamic revolution at 40 are eerily conspicuous by their absence.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.