Trump Turns the Screws on the Mullahs

Why pressure on Iran is good -- and what it can achieve.

The Trump administration has recently demonstrated America’s economic prowess by placing sanctions on three dictatorships led by, what Italians would describe, as _Bruta Figuras…or _brutal figures: Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  U.S. sanctions on Russia and Turkey may prove to be temporary, but the Iran sanctions are more far-reaching and permanent.  

As the U.S. imposed sanctions and doubles tariffs on Turkey’s steel and aluminum imports, the Turkish currency, the Lira, has dropped 45% in value.  The U.S. action was in response to the house arrest of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, on concocted charges of terrorism by the Turkish authorities. The megalomaniac Erdogan has imprisoned Pastor Brunson in retaliation for the U.S. refusal to extradite Pennsylvania-based Mohammed Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious figure, imam, and writer, who is the founder of the worldwide Gulen Hizmet movement.  Erdogan blames his now bitter rival Fethullah Gulen of instigating the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey. 

Also, the administration imposed export restrictions against Russia in response to Moscow’s use of a nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy in Britain, sending the Russian currency, the Ruble, tumbling to a two-year low.

But the Islamic Republic of Iran poses the most potent threat to American interests, and to the security of U.S. allies in the Middle East - and Trump knows it.

He signed an executive order on August 6th, 2018, to re-impose a first round of sanctions on Iran, which were lifted by the Obama administration under the nuclear deal signed in 2015.  The sanctions intend to put economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.  They cover Iran’s purchases in US dollars, its trade in gold and precious metals including aluminum and steel, commercial passenger aircrafts, and coal. The U.S. is also ending imports of Iranian carpets and pistachio nuts.  The Iranian currency, the Rial, lost more than 80% of its value in the last 12 months.  Much of this devaluation is due to the Iranian regime’s mismanagement and corruption. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal has also contributed to the Rial’s weakening.  

The Trump administration does not hide its hope for a regime change in Iran.  Publicly, U.S. National Security advisor John Bolton stated in an interview on Fox News (August 6, 2018) that, “Our policy is not regime change, but we want to put unprecedented pressure on the government of Iran to change its behavior, and so far, they have shown no indication they’re prepared to do that.”  

Bolton was alluding to Iran’s role as the leading state sponsor of global terrorism, its support for terrorist organizations including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Tehran’s illegal development of ballistic missiles that can pack nuclear payloads must also be squashed. The U.S. seeks Iran’s agreement to modify the sunset provisions in the nuclear accord.  Iran’s involvement in Syria, and the threat posed to U.S. allies, Jordan and Israel, is an additional U.S. concern. 

Facing increased U.S. economic pressure, Iran might consider the following option: maintain its current policy, which is to stay within the current nuclear deal. In keeping with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Tehran will seek to prevent other signatories to the JCPOA such as Britain, France, and Germany from joining the U.S. and resuming collective sanctions against Iran.  Keeping with the JCPOA would enable Iran in just a few years to legally resume its nuclear activities, and eliminate all restrictions from obtaining nuclear weapons. 

For the time being, the European states who are part of the agreement are sticking to the JCPOA nuclear deal.  Iran demands that the Europeans compensate it for damages caused by the U.S. withdrawal to stay in the JCPOA agreement.  Iran also requires that the Europeans continue purchasing its oil, help it fight U.S. sanctions, commit to not raising the issues of its ballistic missile program development, and its nefarious regional interference.

The Europeans, (Britain, France, and Germany) are indeed looking for ways to provide Iran with economic aid.  They desperately seek to maintain trade with the country and are concerned over U.S. sanctions against other countries trading with Iran.  The Europeans are, however likely to request Iran re-negotiate with them on the very issues Iran refuses to discuss: its ballistic missiles and its regional interference.  The European interest has more to do with bringing the U.S. back to the nuclear deal than to curb Iran’s bad behavior.

The Iranians might also resume its pre-JCPOA agreement level of nuclear enrichment, and perhaps even increase it in retaliation for U.S.-led economic pressure. Iran’s Ali Khamenei has done this in the past with the Europeans, threatening “If the Europeans linger over our demands, Iran has the right to resume its nuclear activities.  When we see that the JCPOA was useless, one way forward is to restart those halted activities.”  In his May 23, 2018 address to Iranian government officials, he conditioned Iran’s remaining in the nuclear deal on European compliance with such demands as: a resolution against the U.S. violation of the UN Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA; a promise to stop objecting to missile testing and (Iran’s) actions in the Middle East; that the Europeans stand against U.S. sanctions; and European protection for Iran’s oil sales and financial transactions.

Some Iranian officials have warned that the republic might even cancel its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Iran became a signatory in February 1970, when its parliament ratified it.  Should Iran take that step, it would be apparent to all that it seeks to obtain nuclear weapons.  What is certain is that if Iran is to uphold its threat of resuming and increasing the enrichment of uranium; the Europeans will be forced to withdraw from the JCPOA, and the U.S. or Israel might take military action to forestall Iran from becoming a threatening nuclear power.

A third option for Iran is to agree to negotiate a new nuclear deal, which will include the U.S.  Iran announced its rejection of such a proposal.  Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said (May 3, 2018), “Iran will not renegotiate what was agreed years ago and has been implemented.”  Should the Iranian economic situation worsen, and ignite continued demonstrations and internal strife; Iran might be forced to renegotiate for the regime’s survival.  The U.S. will then demand significant alterations of the nuclear agreement - additional provisions that would halt Iranian interference in the region, and measures to curb its ballistic missile development.

It is hard to know what will determine the Iranian regime’s decisions. However, one thing is certain: worsening conditions for the average Iranian will undermine the regime stability. Ordinary Iranians resent their hard earned money being spent by their government in Syria, funding Hamas, Hezbollah, Houtis and the Shiite militias in Iraq.  They want to see the money invested in improving their own lives.  Most Iranians care little about their country becoming a nuclear power. They care more about connecting with the rest of the world.  If the unprecedented U.S. economic pressure on Russia and Turkey is having an impact, the same will likely be seen with Iran.