By Edward Carney
Within hours of the re-imposition and expansion of US sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a press conference in order to simultaneously reiterate the Trump administration’s tough talk on Iran and dispel the notion espoused by some hardliners that the White House had drifted away from its former commitment to maximum pressure.
That notion stems from the fact that the administration ultimately decided in favor of granting waivers to some importers of Iranian oil, including the five largest such importers. However, the Secretary of State’s defense of the administration’s strategy emphasizes that these waivers are conditional upon significant reductions in purchases of Iranian oil. In fact, as the waivers were being considered in previous weeks, it was reported that one of the eventual waiver recipients – India – had been held to the standard of reducing the relevant imports by one-third, whereas the previous White House had been satisfied with only 20 percent.
President Trump himself had indicated in public statements that he expected sanctions to lead to the complete halt of Iranian oil exports. His tone has subsequently moderated, but in the immediate aftermath of the sanctions’ re-imposition, he declared that while it would still be possible to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, he approved waivers in order to prevent a possible spike in global oil prices. The revised strategy is intended to give US partners time to gradually sever their ties to the Islamic Republic unless its government complies with the Trump administration’s demands before the restrictions are tightened over time.
In his press conference on Monday, Pompeo repeated those demands, placing them in stark terms. “The Iranian regime has a choice,” he declared, according to the BBC. “It can either do a 180-degree turn from its outlaw course of action and act like a normal country, or it can see its economy crumble.” Pompeo also insisted that US pressure on that regime would be “relentless,” and Reuters quoted him as saying that current and forthcoming sanctions would seek to “starve Iran’s revenue” for “violent and destabilizing” activities in the Middle East region.
Monday’s sanctions targeted a staggering 700 individuals and entities with ties to Iran’s banking, shipping, and oil industries. The US government also issued warnings to other entities, including those that might consider doing business with the Islamic Republic in defiance of US sanctions. The European Union previously announced its intention to implement a “special purpose vehicle” for such transactions, but questions have swirled around the viability of the enterprise and whether any European businesses would ultimately be willing to take the risk of utilizing it.
Al Jazeera reported on Monday that Iran was still looking to Europe for help in weathering the storm of unilateral American pressure. But that report agreed that the SPV had little potential and would function primarily as a political signal of the “deep regret” that the UK, France, and Germany feel over the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement that was signed by all four powers along with Iran, China, and Russia. The report also quoted one expert as saying that European gestures of support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would likely fail to solve “90 percent” of the problems associated with renewed US sanctions.
The Iranian economy was reportedly already feeling the effects of the sanctions that had been re-imposed in August, in that they contributed to the decline in the value of the national currency, the rial, in turn contributing to the growth of protests by activists who are angry over the regime’s economic mismanagement and persistently wasteful spending on regional proxy conflicts and the defense of the Assad dictatorship in Syria.
Additionally, overall exports of Iranian oil had reportedly fallen by on million barrels per day compared to the period before the re-imposition of the first round of sanctions. This fact was cited by Secretary of State Pompeo to dispel the notion that the existing sanctions are inadequate, especially given that the newest sanctions are expected to be far more punishing than the first round.
As the Associated Press pointed out on Monday, the 700 entities targeted on Monday comprise more than three times the number that had been targeted over the previous two years in the midst of the Trump administration’s severely hawkish rhetoric on Iran. What’s more, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered his assurances that US pressure on the Islamic Republic “is only going to mount from here.” Some of the harshest critics of the Iranian regime, such as the organization United Against a Nuclear Iran, have reportedly been persuaded by such statements, and anticipate that the newly announced waivers will only be temporary if Tehran fails to change its behavior.
Other commentators, however, have questioned the significance of the tough talk being offered by officials like Mnuchin and Pompeo. The USA Today highlighted the administration’s description of the latest sanctions as the strongest ever imposed on Iran, but added that their effective strength might be diminished by the fact that the sanctions are unilateral, in contrast to those that were imposed with the broad participation of the international community prior to 2013.
The same report notes that in this context, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani characterized the waivers on eight of Iran’s trading partners as a victory for the Islamic Republic. This commentary emerged in the midst of a televised speech in which Rouhani also called for the US to be “punished forever” for its supposed abandonment of diplomacy. And according to Reuters, Iran’s representative to the United Nations sought to expand upon this rhetoric by writing a letter to the international body’s Secretary General calling for a “collective response” to the “irresponsible conduct of the United States.”
This strategic outreach to the international community was arguably augmented by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent statement that Tehran would consider fresh diplomacy if the White House offered a new approach. But such statements can also be interpreted as tacitly acknowledging the regime’s vulnerability to emerging sanctions, or simply as stalling for time.
And in any event, they run contrary to the hardline rhetoric that remains predominant among responses from Iranian officials, even from the president who was once described as comparatively moderate and as a potential incubator for internal reform.
The Washington Post highlighted some of that rhetoric on Monday and noted that in addition to promising to defy sanctions, the Islamic Republic also apparently gestured toward traditional threats against the US and its allies, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps conducting highly visible military exercises in the northern and western regions of the country.
The propensity for threats and verbal defiance of international norms is likely to cut against Tehran’s efforts to appeal to the international community and secure assistance from the European Union. At a time when there are already serious doubts about the EU’s ability to help, Al Jazeera notes that relations are deteriorating between Iran and a number of European nations, potentially impeding their willingness to even follow through on sanctions defiance. This deterioration stems partly from recent reports of Iranian terror threats against opposition activists in the West, but also from the regime’s apparent refusal to limit its anti-Western rhetoric to the US as sanctions come back into force.
IranWire pointed to one aspect of this situation last week when it noted that an Iranian delegate to the United Nations had used a committee on cultural, social, and humanitarian affairs to espouse familiar conspiracy theories and allege that the British Broadcasting Corporation is part of a targeted campaign of “media propaganda” against the Islamic Republic, led by “hostile governments.” The delegate, Zahra Ershadi, specifically accused the UK of such hostility, marking the first time that any Iranian diplomat has done so at the UN.
But while this arguably marks a new escalation in Iran’s war of words with Western “enemies,” another report underscored the fact that the overall trend of broad-based defiance of the international community is by no means new.
The report traced Iran’s longstanding refusal to ratify international agreements, even when doing so would clearly be in the interests of the Iranian nation and its people. It pointed out, for instance, that while the Iran nuclear deal was in full effect, the country could have restored access to international payment systems by coming into compliance with the anti-money laundering provisions of certain international agreements.
Yet the regime went back and forth on this issue until the return of US sanctions effectively removed the option.
This commitment to Iran’s social and cultural isolation, regardless of the impact on its economic prospects, has seemingly contributed to the popular outraged expressed by the Iranian people in recent and ongoing demonstrations that are focused on the country’s economic situation. Street protests and labor strikes have featured appeals to the government to cease its regional force projection and instead focus on addressing the needs of the public. And slogans to this effect reportedly persisted even after US sanctions began to be re-imposed.
In his comments on those sanctions, President Rouhani insisted that the economic pressure would only harm the Iranian people and would not affect the clerical regime’s policies. But protesters have previously rejected arguments to this effect, chanting “the enemy is here” and accusing officials of lying when “they say it is the US.”
The State Department estimates that since 2012, the Islamic Republic has spent 16 billion dollars on regional proxies and the Syria Civil War, and both the US government and Iran’s activist community are currently striving to halt that spending and reverse Tehran’s priorties.