Some economic progress is, of course, to be expected in light of the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief that Iran received under the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But that agreement was negotiated according to the leadership of a different American presidential administration, and the Trump administration and its supporters have aggressively decried the JCPOA and Obama administration’s former handling of Iran in general.
President Donald Trump set a new tone for dealings with Iran very earlier in his presidency. After the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted a new test of ballistic missiles that could be used to carry nuclear warheads, the administration issued a statement putting Iran “on notice,” and instituted new economic sanctions against 25 individuals and groups with links to the missile program.
This is something that many opponents of the Iranian regime hopefully regard as a first step toward a broader confrontational strategy, to include more such economic sanctions. In an editorial at The Hill, Professor Raymond Tanter suggests that the Trump administration could intensify sanctions related to Iran’s human rights violations and support for terrorism, all without directly undermining the JCPOA.
However, the expectation among most observers is that a broad range of pressures exerted on the Islamic Republic would ultimately lead to its walking away from the nuclear deal, or else to an overall increase in tensions that would make the deal unsustainable. These prospects are the very things that have lead the IMF to determine that Iran could still slip into a major recession, if its current access to foreign capital and trade begins to dry up.
To some extent, this has already happened. Western companies like the French energy giant Total have slowed down their pursuit of agreements that were already tentatively established among Iranian partners. Others whose dealings with Iran had not progress passed the theoretical stage have set the notion aside until it is clear whether the JCPOA will remain in force and the US government will reauthorize the suspension of key sanctions.
Of course, the persistence of uncertainty indicates that it is not yet clear that the Trump White House is committed to any particular course of action, other than a general intensification of pressure on the Islamic Republic. The nature and extent of that intensification may still be substantially affected by actions that the Iranians might take to justify further enforcement measures.
An article in the National Interest observes that Tehran has done a notoriously poor job of dispelling the suspicions of such figures as Donald Trump. The article emphasizes Iran’s desperate need for Western investment as a way of staving off the recession that the IMF has warned about. But it also says that the Islamic Republic itself has made that difficult, first through its intrinsic opposition to the notion of opening up relations with traditional Western adversaries, and secondly by way of its refusal to compromise the hardline positions that made it an international pariah in the first place.
Critics of the Iranian theocracy, among them the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have determined that the vast majority of the Iranian economy is controlled by hardline entities such as front companies for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This means that some of Iran’s fiercest opponents of foreign engagement wield considerable influence over economic policy, and also that wide-ranging relief from international economic sanctions threatens to provide those hardliners with financial resources that could be used for the support of international terrorism or the perpetuation of domestic human rights abuses.
The National Interest notes that those hardline entities do hope to acquire access to foreign capital, but would prefer to do so without compromising their power in any measure. This arguably makes the continuation of sanctions relief and economic engagement difficult to justify in the West, especially among allies of the current US president.
That president’s new policies have been answered with renewed rhetoric on the part of the Iranian regime, and this is certainly no help if Tehran wishes to alter its habit of making it difficult for foreign entities to do business with or in Iran.
Iran Front Page News reported on Tuesday that Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament had spoken at a ceremony to commemorate Iranians killed in the Syrian Civil War, and had used the occasion to heap praise upon the IRGC for its foreign interventionist activities and its unique “preoccupation” with the defense and advancement of the regime’s interpretation of Islamic ideology.
Larijani’s statements would be disturbing enough to critics of the regime under normal circumstances, but his public embrace of escalating IRGC power comes at a time when the hardline paramilitary organization has recently completed multi-day exercises and demonstrations of new weapons systems, accompanied by explicit statements of readiness for war with “enemies” such as the United States.
What’s more, the website Liberty Unyielding pointed to reports on Tuesday that a high-ranking IRGC officer named Hassan Abbassi, who is also the head of an influential Iranian think tank, declared that he believed the IRGC would be capable of raising a “guerilla army” from among the two million Iranians presently living in Iran.
Abbassi’s rhetoric ignores the fact that a great many of those Iranians relocated to the US specifically in order to flee from the oppressive Iranian theocracy, and that many are active participants in political groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which openly advocates for regime change and the establishment of a truly democratic system of governance in Tehran. Nevertheless, the IRGC official’s statement underscores the hardline positions that are prominent among his colleagues and that have the continued support of leading government officials such as Speaker Larijani.
It goes without saying that the ongoing expression and support of such positions makes it exceptionally unlikely that the Trump administration will back down from its assertive policies, which could threaten the Iranian regime’s efforts to reclaim economic stability.