Can Sanctions Bring Regime Change in Iran?
Why the Mullahs should be worried.
On November 5, the United States imposed a comprehensive set of sanctions on Iran, which were characterized by United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the “toughest sanctions ever put in place on the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Some 700 Iranian entities and individuals were targeted. Particularly hard hit were the Islamic Republic’s energy, banking, shipping and air transport sectors. The action follows a preliminary set of sanctions imposed on entities affiliated with the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its rogue ballistic missile program. Citing Iranian violations, the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May.
In response to the U.S. action, Iran tried to put on a brave face. In a letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Iran’s UN ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, termed the measure “illegal.” Iran’s foreign minister and master dissembler, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated the sanctions “will have no impact on determination of the great Iranian nation and the Americans will be obliged to change their policy.” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, viewed by some in the West to be a “moderate,” vowed that his nation will continue to sell oil despite the sanctions.
In Iran, real power rests with “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while the president is a mere figurehead who requires the Supreme Leader’s imprimatur before he can even run for the office of the president. Khamenei is a radical Shia Islamist who controls the IRGC as well as its auxiliary Basij militia. Nothing of major import in Iran occurs without the Supreme Leader’s approval
The U.S. has stated that its goal is to modify Iran’s behavior and not to institute regime change. The Trump administration is seeking to thwart Iran’s ballistic missile program and its overseas mischief making. The administration is also seeking to modify certain clauses within the JCPOA, particularly the JCPOA’s sunset clauses which will enable the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium beyond current limitations.
Despite Iran’s bluster, the sanctions are having a devastating impact on Iran’s economy. The Iranian rial currency has been freefalling and has already lost more than 70 percent of its value against the dollar since the beginning of 2018. Iranians are helplessly watching as their buying power and savings are whittling away all while their government finances proxy wars in far-flung places, invests in ballistic missiles and sets up front companies to purchase nuclear weapons-related contraband.
Aside from terrorism, Iran’s chief export is oil. If Iran can’t sell its oil, it loses its main source of revenue and the engine of its economy. In addition, while Iranians tout the fact that European parties to the JCPOA are abiding by it, major European companies like Peugeot, Citroen, Siemens, and Total are fleeing Iran like rats jumping from a sinking ship. Moreover, Iran’s banking sector will no longer have access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, (SWIFT). That’s the mechanism that facilitates worldwide global financial transactions. As analyst Eli Lake notes, “SWIFT is a big deal. Isolating Iran from it compounds its financial crisis. Even if companies were willing to risk being cut off from the U.S. economy to purchase Iranian oil, it will be almost impossible for Iran to receive the payments if its banks aren’t part of SWIFT.”
Regime change in Iran represents the optimal solution to the Iranian problem. Aside from its rogue nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Iran is the world’s premier state-sponsor of international terrorism and is responsible for carrying out acts of international terror on five continents. The United States has not been immune from Iran’s malign activities. Iran supplied explosively formed penetrators to anti-American insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, which claimed more than 500 American lives. Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut killing 241 U.S. service members. And the Iranians also tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil.
Since the end of 2017, Iran has been wracked by series of widespread protests with some demonstrators chanting “Death to the dictator,” and “We don’t want the ayatollahs.” Other chants included “Death to Palestine,” “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon,” and “Leave Syria and think of us.” Predictably, the regime has dealt harshly with the demonstrators, arresting thousands and murdering scores. Some of those killed were murdered while in government custody.
The demonstrations are a product of the declining economic situation and frustration over the growing and accurate perception that the mullah elite are corrupt, venal and living in luxury while the common folk are struggling. Compounding the problem for the mullahs is a severe water shortage that has affected large swaths of the country. It should be noted that Syria’s deadly civil war was precipitated by a similar water crisis.
But can demonstrations by themselves lead to the regime’s downfall? That would largely depend on whether the demonstrations can gain traction and sympathy from elements within the Iran’s conventional army, known as the Artesh. Thus far, the demonstrations have been spasmodic, occurring in bursts and fits. That could change if the economy worsens, and as the rial continues to plummet and revenues dry up, it will worsen.
The Artesh is responsible for securing Iran’s borders from external threats while the IRGC is responsible for “guarding the Revolution and its achievements.” Naturally, the IRGC receives the lion’s share of the defense budget and controls several key sectors of Iran’s economy. The weaker Artesh is subordinate to the wishes of the IRGC. Moreover, over the past forty years, Iran’s theocratic dictatorship, utilizing the IRGC and its auxiliary Basij militia, has fashioned an effective apparatus created specifically for the purpose of suppressing internal dissent. Elements within the Artesh thought to be disloyal to the theocracy have been purged.
Another factor to consider when assessing regime change in Iran is the make-up of the Islamic Republic’s population. Some 40 to 50 percent of Iran’s populace is non-Persian, and their loyalty to the regime is questionable at best. Kurds, Balochs, Azeris and Arabs have long suffered from discriminatory practices instituted by the regime. Some of these groups have taken up arms against the mullahs. Two Kurdish groups, the PDKI and the PAK have instituted full-scale insurgencies; while an assortment of Sunni Islamist and Jihadist groups have also gone on the warpath. While these insurgencies do not pose an immediate threat to the regime, they represent added pressure at a time when the mullahs can ill afford it.