By Mahmoud Hakamian
Full-scale US sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran have now been back in force for over a week. During that time, the Trump administration has evidently been working to keep up the pressure on the Iranian regime through various means, including public statements that tease further expansion of the financial measures that are currently limiting Iran’s global exports and banking transactions.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most prominent sources of such public statements is White House National Security Advisor John Bolton. In addition to well-known and longstanding hawkish views regarding traditional adversaries of the Islamic Republic, Bolton is also reportedly close to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of democratic opposition that believes Western pressures could help to promote ongoing domestic unrest in the Islamic Republic, thereby facilitating popular overthrow of the theocratic dictatorship.
The Trump administration has mostly kept its distance from NCRI talking points and references to regime change, though the president and some of his foreign policy principals have affirmed American support for the mass uprising of Iranian anti-government activists at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. In the context of that support, public statements from Bolton and other officials do arguably point to the expectation that forthcoming US-led pressure will constitute aid to the Iranian Resistance, which has remained highly active in various localities ever since the nationwide uprising.
On Tuesday, Voice of America News quoted Bolton as saying, “We think the [Iranian] government is under real pressure and it's our intention to squeeze them very hard. As the British say, squeeze them until the pips squeak.” Bolton’s further remarks only made reference to expansion and tough enforcement of economic sanctions. But in light of his participation, in recent years, at a number of international gatherings organized by the NCRI, it is probable that he also expects pressure to continue to mount from the drivers of Iran’s domestic unrest, principally the NCRI’s main constituent organization, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
In January, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly acknowledged that the PMOI (MEK) had “planned for months” to organize and promote the nationwide uprising. In so doing, he broke with longstanding regime propaganda that portrays the PMOI (MEK) as a small, cultish organization with little support within Iran, and little capacity to affect change. The regime’s betrayal of its own talking points is particularly significant in view of current circumstances because government officials have not deviated in such a noticeable way from their propaganda regarding the effects of US sanctions.
After the US finalized its withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last week with the re-imposition of the last of the formerly suspended sanctions, the supreme leader was joined by President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and others in saying that financial pressure would not change the regime’s behavior in any degree. A minority of those statements anticipated increased economic strain, but they insisted that the Islamic Republic would be fully capable of weathering the storm.
In contrast to the traditional Iranian talking points regarding the PMOI (MEK) and the prospects for popular overthrow of the clerical regime, there is presently a good deal of foreign support for the regime’s talking points regarding sanctions. That is to say, a number of European nations continue to stand by Iran in its conflict with the US over the future of the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The leadership of the European Union has even gone as far as to say that it intends to put into place a “special purpose vehicle” that would facilitate transactions with the Islamic Republic and help its government to evade US sanctions.
But the duration of that support for Iran’s position is a matter of some dispute. In his remarks on Tuesday, Bolton stated that Europe as a whole was coming around to acceptance of the new situation regarding the JCPOA, with many European entities having already worked through “denial and anger” to get to that point. Indeed, a large number of European companied halted their business dealings with Iranian counterparts in between Trump’s announcement of withdrawal in May and the re-imposition of oil and banking sanctions last week. As a result, US officials have been able to estimate that Iran’s global oil exports have already been cut nearly in half.
To whatever extent European businesses and government remain committed to opposing American pressure tactics, the Trump administration is reportedly unconcerned. This was the message of Sigal Mandelker, the US Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, when she spoke to the media at the start of a European tour that is aimed at fostering international support for existing and forthcoming sanctions.
“I’m not concerned about the SPV actually at all, and I do believe that we’re going to find additional mechanisms by which we can work together,” she said according to Bloomberg. “I very strongly believe that we have a common picture with our European allies.”
Mandelker also emphasized that this “common picture” partly consists of a shared understanding of national security threats emanating from the Islamic Republic. Those threats have been moved more directly into the spotlight in recent months by the revelation of foiled plots to assassinate Iranian opposition activists in Europe and to set off explosives at a compound and an international rally associated with the NCRI and the PMOI (MEK) . In October, the arrest of an Iranian operative in Copenhagen led Danish authorities to begin exerting pressure on the European Union to sanction and isolate the Iranian regime.
Although it is not clear whether the perceived terrorist threat influenced the decision, one key EU member state appeared to take a stand against European collaboration with the Islamic Republic this week, thereby lending credence to the Trump administration’s notion that the SPV and other sanctions-busting measures will ultimately prove ineffective. Agence France Presse reported on Tuesday that the Austrian Foreign Ministry had rejected the EU’s suggestion that Austria play host to the SPV.
The Austrian capital of Vienna might have been a natural choice of location, considering that the city already contains the headquarters for a number of international organizations and previously served as the location of nuclear negotiations that led to the JCPOA. But the Iranian embassy in Vienna was also the workplace of Assadollah Assadi, the high-ranking Iranian diplomat who was arrested in Germany for his lead role in planning the would-be terrorist attack on the NCRI’s Iran Freedom rally outside of Paris.
Rising concerns about such terrorist attacks may lead other Europeans to drift away from former commitments to opposing the US sanctions. Pressure from the White House and from other critics of the Iranian regime might have a similar effect, as might the growing recognition of opportunities to use financial and diplomatic pressure as a means of supporting and facilitating the ongoing unrest inside the Islamic Republic.
But at the same time, EU efforts to counteract US sanctions may simply be constrained by practical considerations regarding enforcement and evasion. With full-scale sanctions just coming back into force, opinions seem to vary on this point. On Sunday, NPR reported that a number of analysts expect Iran and its partners to find ways of skirting the sanctions. But that same report called attention to improvements in such areas as satellite monitoring of oil tanker traffic, which could put the Iranians in the position of experimenting to determine which evasions tactics work and which do not.
The NPR piece credits Tehran with “enduring” international sanctions until the JCPOA was implemented in 2016. But it is widely understood that the Iranian regime came to the negotiating table approximately three years earlier because it was compelled to do so by the cumulative effects of those sanctions. In this sense, the regime’s former sanctions-busting measures may not have been as effective as NPR implies. Thus, the newfound pressures on that regime may prove to be even stronger than the previous sanctions, if Tehran finds that foreign partners are either unable or unwilling to follow through on their plans to evade American pressures.