Iran’s brinkmanship doomed to failure
Time is running out for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his government. Last week, he was summoned by parliament to answer questions on the country’s mounting economic crisis and, in a rare rebuke, his explanations — he blamed the economic woes on an “American conspiracy” — were rejected and he now faces a review by the judiciary. Two of his ministers were impeached last month, putting further pressure on him.
Iran’s economy nosedived after US President Donald Trump in May withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed biting sanctions. Trump warned foreign companies that they too will face penalties if they choose to do business with Iran. The EU pledged to save the nuclear deal and protect European companies from possible US sanctions but, four months later and after a series of meetings, the deal continues to rest on shaky ground.
Even Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appeared skeptical when he warned Rouhani last week, through comments published on his website, that “there is no problem with negotiations and keeping contact with the Europeans, but you should give up hope on them over economic issues or the nuclear deal.”
The European front is no longer united either. Last week, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for further negotiations with Tehran, saying: “Iran cannot avoid discussions, negotiations on three other major subjects that worry us — the future of Iran’s nuclear commitments after 2025, the ballistic question and the fact there is a sort of ballistic proliferation on the part of Iran, and the role Iran plays to stabilize the whole region.” Iran's Foreign Ministry dismissed Le Drian’s statement and complained of “bullying and excessive demands” on the EU’s side.
But Iran’s troubles will worsen when a second batch of US sanctions take effect in early November. This time the sanctions will target Iran's main commodity and foreign currency source — its oil exports. Washington has threatened countries that buy Iranian oil and even China, a major importer, has hinted it may cut down its imports from Iran. Bloomberg reported last week that Iranian oil exports had already fallen in August to 2.1 million barrels per day — their lowest since March 2016.
Experts estimate Iran’s losses from the current US sanctions to be $5 billion a month, and that is the main reason behind the collapse of the Iranian currency and sharp decline of imports of essential goods. Iran also continues to suffer from high unemployment, especially among the youth, and deteriorating public services. In reality, neither Rouhani nor any other leader could offset the effects of US sanctions on the local economy. But that is not the only reason for Iran’s economic qualms. Since Khamenei came to power in 1989, the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the clerical establishment has grown exponentially. Those two major players have impeded attempts for genuine economic and political reforms, which began with President Mohammed Khatami in the 1990s. Further attempts to steer the country toward a more liberal and transparent rule were nipped in the bud following the 2009 presidential elections, when the religious establishment backed conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against potential reformist candidates.
But Iran’s troubles will worsen when a second batch of US sanctions take effect in early November
Furthermore, those two bodies are the driving force behind Iran's regional meddling in the affairs of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Such interventions come at a hefty price, both economically and politically. It is no secret that the majority of Iran’s youth do not approve of the ideologically driven adventures of their leaders in the region, nor do they embrace their anti-US rhetoric.
Today, popular protests, which began late last year, continue sporadically in various parts of the country amid worsening economic conditions. Iran's religious leadership has rejected Washington’s conditions to lift the sanctions and rebuffed Trump’s readiness for unconditional talks.
Top Iranian military and IRGC officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea passageways in retaliation for any disruption of Iranian oil exports. Such actions would prove foolish and would put Tehran on a military collision course with Washington.
There have also been reports that Iran has delivered ballistic missiles to loyalist groups in Iraq in a bid to put pressure on Gulf countries. Again, such move would only isolate Iran further and would have little effect on a possible military confrontation.
It would be wrong on Khamenei’s part to abandon Rouhani at this crucial stage and allow hardline IRGC figures to take over. There is speculation that, if Rouhani is impeached, an interim military government led by the hawkish Gen. Qassem Soleimani would take over. That would be a recipe for disaster and could be the trigger for a major regional showdown; one that Iran is sure to lose.
Instead, Iran should not dismiss the opportunity to engage in talks with the US while initiating a meaningful dialogue with its neighbors. Iranian leaders have a choice: Either face further domestic troubles that will lead to chaos or take serious steps toward normalizing ties with its neighbors and ending its meddling in regional affairs. The current politics of brinkmanship will certainly fail.
- Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010