When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States more than two years ago, politicians in Iran argued that his election would not have impacted the Iranian economy. Today, these statements seem more like a spell than a real political consideration. From the very beginning, Trump and his tighter circles of allies made no secret of pursuing a confrontation policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. After many efforts to establish a dialogue and after international diplomacy had committed itself to reinstating Tehran in the political and economic arena (not without sacrifice), the current US administration has decided to reverse this path and return to rhetoric that is reminiscent of the “Axis of evil”.
On May 8, 2018, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA), also known as the “Iran nuclear deal”, with the reason that “[the deal] failed to guarantee the safety of the American people from the risk created by the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to defend this reason, he advanced eleven requests to Tehran as a precondition to open a new negotiation. But the requests have been considered as like as an ultimatum, and have been predictably ignored. Pompeo has constantly described Iran’s regional policy as aggressive and belligerent. The Iranian intervention in Syria and its support for the Houthis in Yemen have been labelled as the adventuristic engagement of the Revolutionary Guard corps with Iranian regional proxies, meaning the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi and also Hamas. Pompeo accuses Iran of pursuing a hostile foreign policy, supporting international terrorism and fuelling instability across the Middle East. The main apparent reason to withdraw from the JCPOA was to curtail the Iranian development of ballistic missiles – a subject not covered by the nuclear deal – for which preexisting sanctions had never been revoked and, moreover,. The latter requires monitoring of Tehran’s nuclear activity, not of the status of missile development.
Therefore, the US withdrawal from the deal had nothing to do with the Iranian nuclear program, which is under sever inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), rather it was just the initial moment of a policy of confrontation and pressure toward Tehran that displays the US policy in the Middle East. Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the subsequent reintroduction of secondary sanctions seems to have two purposes. The first is related to US internal politics in which President Trump overturned the regional posture of his predecessor, Barack Obama. It is not a coincidence that the key figures of Donald Trump’s innerc circle have adopted policies and rhetoric diametrically opposed to those that had made possible the signature of the Iran nuclear deal. Mike Pompeo considers the deal a strategical mistake and John Bolton, National Security Adviser, is constantly threatening – more or less explicitly – some form of military intervention and even regime change. The second purpose – partly contradictory – is to entrust the control and the balance of power in the Middle East to the US regional allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The progressive US military disengagement from the Middle East is evident in the withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan. In this scenario, US allies will be informally in charge of keeping the balance of power and pursuing US interests in the region. This policy comes true when Trumps’ advisors share the commitment of curtailing Iranian influence in the region, and its strategic depth in Iraq and in the Levant, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman. There is therefore a contradiction between the goal of regime change in Iran and the desire to disengage from the region in order to focus more on Asia (including the Korean peninsula). The goal of restoring secondary sanctions, which produce their effects on third countries that want to trade with Iran, is not just to weaken the Iranian economic system, but to limit its operational capability in the region. This is a move that may explain the US “exit strategy” from the Middle East without compromising its interests (or those of its allies).
This strategy goes through the weakening of the Iranian national economy by choking off the oil revenues. Secondary sanctions aim to cut off Iranian oil exports with the intention of weakening the economic wealth of the Revolutionary Guard and religious foundations, which are considered to be the main pillar of the Islamic Republic’s financial strength.
However, this approach is built on major misjudgements. As we have seen on various occasions since the 1979 revolution, Iran will not easily change its regional posture. There is no evidence of a correlation between sanctions and a change in Iranian foreign policy. Sanctions will affect the life of ordinary people who are struggling to find medicines and other imported goods, high inflation, depreciation of the currency, unemployment and economic instability. However, these issues are not just the effects of the sanctions, but also of government mismanagement.
Within this framework, Trump’s advisors hailed the popular protests that occurred in Iran last year, seeing in the popular discontent a resource for the US strategy. The US administration has fanned the flames of popular frustration not only by pronouncing to support the protests, but also by legitimizing the demonstrators against the Iranian political elite. Mike Pompeo encouraged the protestors and declared to take the side of Iranian people in their quest for rights and freedom. Yet, once again, the Unites States misunderstood the Iranian domestic dynamics. The 2018 protests were conducted by precarious workers, unemployed youth, truck drivers and teachers, who demanded better working conditions and higher salaries, not a change of regime and even less a foreign intervention.
In Iran, external threats do not increase people’s discontent toward the government; rather they fuel resilience and national unity. The triumvirate of Trump, Bolton and Pompeo threatens Iran, but it is also unable to provide plans for a hypothetical, albeit remote and unlikely, regime change. The US rhetoric of saving the Iranian people from a despotic regime is not credible, not only for Iranians, but also for the international community.
In February, at the Warsaw summit on peace and security in the Middle East, the Trump administration aimed at persuading other countries to join in the effort by convening an anti-Iran multilateral coalition. On the contrary, the summit showed that the international community is willing to deal with Iran, and above all recognises (and therefore accepts as a geopolitical fact) Iran as a regional power. As Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, reiterated, Iran is a key player for the stability of the Middle East, and there is a need to engage it, not just confront it.
Washington is dealing with Iran in ways that have not changed much since the G.W. Bush’s administration, but the international context is significantly different. With the announced withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan demonstrating the US intent to disengage from the Middle East, old strategies no longer seem to work. The Iranian capacity to adapt to high pressures and sanctions, as has historically occurred, will guarantee the survival of the Islamic Republic, even if the EU is currently struggling to enforce a “Special Purpose Vehicle” to allow financial transactions and maintain economic relations with Tehran. Without the support of the international community it is hard to predict the long-term impact of US sanctions. The renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal also seems unlikely. The recent summit in Vietnam between Trump and North Korean leader Kim-Jong un represents the outcome of the US policy of was publicly dubbed a strategy of “maximum pressure” to force the counterpart to negotiate. Yet, even under these circumstances no agreement was reached in Hanoi. Iran therefore sees no reason to expose itself to another diplomatic impasse.
The Islamic Republic is therefore willing to wait and see the effects of the progressive US disengagement from the Middle East, while looking East for its business and while trying to keep the nuclear deal alive. Beyond those in Washington who advocate a military attack to Iran, the reintroduction of sanctions may ultimately be an “exit strategy” from the Middle East designed to help the Trump administration avoid a real confrontation with Iran.