Will Iran yield in the face of growing US pressure?
Iran has been facing a severe dilemma for nine months, ever since US President Donald Trump’s administration quit the controversial 2015 nuclear deal and decided to reimpose sanctions. This move was part of a new US strategy that aims to prevent Iran from going ahead with its plans to enrich uranium by 2025, to stop its ballistic missiles program, and to reduce its damaging project in the Middle East by preventing Tehran from imposing its expansionist agenda at the expense of the security and stability of other regional countries.
The US administration did not stop at imposing the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran last November, as its senior officials embarked on a round of shuttle diplomacy to convince other global heavyweight nations to join its efforts against the Iranian threat. This pressure entered a new stage last week, when the Trump administration convened a global conference in the Polish capital Warsaw with participants from more than 60 countries. The conference’s themes included the need to confront Iran’s threat and to curb its power in the region. While the US led the efforts to hold this conference, the European powers were keen to participate, despite keeping a relatively low profile owing to the divergence in viewpoints between the US and Europe, particularly regarding Washington’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear pact and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.
Some believe, however, that the US is not putting sufficient pressure on Iran’s regime to bring it to its knees, given the ambiguity shrouding US strategy and its policies to confront Iran’s disruptive activities in the region. It is also felt that the tools used by Washington are not reflective of the enormity of the threats posed by Iran, as they suggest that there are no alternatives but to negotiate with the regime.
More importantly, the objective behind the US sanctions is ambiguous. Does Washington aim to discipline the regime? Does it want to change it? Or does it want to force it to sit down at the negotiating table and sign a new deal with new terms? This ambiguity has created a state of uncertainty and suspicion for many countries around the world, affecting their reaction to the US pressure on Iran. Another factor is Iran’s long experience in circumventing US sanctions and pressure by living on the edge, which is a key feature of the Iranian regime’s nationalist mindset.
The regime is also going through a critical stage domestically, as it faces severe challenges that threaten its survival and ability to remain in power. The most acute of these challenges is the erosion of both the revolutionary zeal on which the regime was founded and the revolution’s gains. This is beyond the control of the Iranian leadership, with all the key figures of the 1979 revolution now dead and nothing remaining but the slogans that continue to govern some institutions, headed primarily by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Due to this factor, some observers believe Iran is heading for a soft coup led by the IRGC, which could take place following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s death — although there are leaked reports suggesting that Khamenei is now in the process of picking a successor in order to avoid any ambiguous scenario that could follow his demise.
While the leaders in Tehran are so far managing the crisis facing the country to avert further economic pressures and their impact on the already deteriorating domestic situation, the regime is going too far with its political rhetoric
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Meanwhile, the Iranian political system itself is also suffering from a loss of legitimacy due to rising popular discontent. People poured on to the streets to take part in mass protests across the country in late 2017 and early 2018, demanding the downfall of the entire regime and an end to its expansionist activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries due to the massive financial expenditure, which has drained the state’s budget, leaving little to be spent on the Iranian people. The regime also suffers from factional protests that have been breaking out sporadically due to worsening socioeconomic conditions, rising unemployment and worsening living standards.
While the leaders in Tehran are so far managing the crisis facing the country to avert further economic pressures and their impact on the already deteriorating domestic situation, the regime is going too far with its political rhetoric. It claims that it is able to support a steadfast position for the longest possible period in the face of these economic pressures by depending on its domestic or “resistance” economy.
This was shown in a recent speech delivered by President Hassan Rouhani to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. In his address delivered in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square, Rouhani declared: “We will not let the US emerge victorious. The Iranian people have faced, and will face, some economic hardships.” Rouhani vowed that the country would continue to develop its military power and its missile program. This is considered an alarming indication of the continued threat to regional security posed by Iran through its missiles and its hard or soft interventions, paying no consideration to the principle of mutual neighborly respect or to the sovereignty of other nations.
In the same speech, Rouhani sent an implicit message to the Iranian people, warning them of the harmful consequences of responding to the US calls to protest against the regime, which he claimed had protected Iran and defended its history. Rouhani warned that those who rebelled against the regime would “face the unknown,” asserting that the revolution had come to protect the state itself from demise.
In the end, we should not rule out the possibility that Iran may yield to US pressure, however gradually. The regime is expected to accept the need to restart negotiations. This was expressed clearly in the Iranian president’s remarks last week, when he said: “We are ready for dialogue and common sense, but we refuse pressures.”
This was seen by experts as a way of setting the stage inside Iran and molding public opinion to accept the regime’s next step. This will no doubt be promoted in the media as the “heroic flexibility” proclaimed by Khamenei when he wanted the people to accept the nuclear deal in 2015. In reality, it is essential, given the current horrendous economic situation in Iran, with the International Monetary Fund’s latest figures stating that the Iranian economy had entered a phase of contraction in 2018 and predicting that gross domestic product would decline by 3.6 percent in 2019. Ultimately, it seems that the saying “Iran yields to no pressures but the tough ones” may well prove true.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami