Written by Mahmoud Hakamian
An article published by Radio Farda on Thursday highlighted some of the responses issued by the Trump administration this week to the latest European Union efforts to bolster the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the wake of the US withdrawal in May.
The article emphasized comments that President Donald Trump himself made at the United Nations Security Council, in the context of US-chaired meeting that focused largely on Iran. The president insisted that those who fail to comply with US sanctions will face “consequences”.
Some sanctions that had been suspended under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action can back into force in August and the rest – focusing on Iran’s crucially important oil exports, will return on November 4.
EU member states recently announced, along with fellow JCPOA signatories Iran, Russia, and China, that they intended to circumvent US sanctions by installing a payments system that would avoid the US dollar in transactions involving the Islamic Republic.
It remains unclear whether such a system is actually practical, and Radio Farda notes that some Trump administration officials including National Security Advisor John Bolton have mocked the effort for its lack of specifics.
But the same article asserts that the State Department and the administration as a whole are “alarmed” by the effort and using it as motivation to step up their efforts to pressure traditional partners of the US into participation in a high-pressure strategy for dealing with the Islamic Republic.
Underscoring this point, the BBC reported upon Trump’s threats of “severe consequences” within the context of his public relations campaign to focus attention upon Tehran’s malign behavior and to urge the UN toward coordinated effort to make sure that Iran reins in that behavior while also being prevented from ever acquiring a nuclear bomb.
This goes to show that the administration is in some sense torn between strategies of consensus-building and exertion of unilateral will, a situation that is reflected in the remarks of other officials apart from the president.
While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to urge European partners toward reconsideration by declaring that he was “disturbed and indeed deeply disappointed” by the latest measures, Bolton assumed a characteristically more confrontational tone, cryptically warning that “we do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anybody else.”
Still, the clear presence of a consensus-building approach contradicts the message that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought to deliver in his address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday.
As Al Jazeera reported, the Iranian president used the speech to decry the “bullying nature” of the United States and to accuse it of insisting solely upon unilateral action. Rouhani expanded upon this narrative by predicting that the US would find itself globally isolated and would eventually return to compliance with the JCPOA, marking a diplomatic victory for the Islamic Republic.
But the Al Jazeera report also characterized this narrative as part of an effort by the Rouhani administration to distract attention away from the economic situation at home – a situation that has grown worse in the face of expanding US sanctions, despite the best efforts by the European Union and other world powers to counteract the effects of US pressure.
With sanctions on Iranian oil exports still more than a month away, numerous European businesses have already defied the appeals of European governments by pulling out of Iranian markets. Various non-European trading partners of the US have taken a similar tack, with Indian even publicly committing to receive no Iranian oil in the month of November.
These conditions have helped to exacerbate the problem of currency devaluation in the Islamic Republic, pushing the rial down to an exchange rate as low as 160,000 to the dollar, and bringing Iranians into the streets to protest the prospect of its value continuing to fall to 200,000 or lower.
Last week, IranWire called attention to the Rouhani administration’s apparent inability to contain this and related problems, and the report also pointed to evidence that the president is well aware of that situation, and therefore consciously trying to score points in other areas.
While IranWire specifically warned that past experience shows that the Iranian regime will resort to violence to compensate for threats, including threats from “a mess of its own making,” it is also true that hardline rhetoric against Western “enemies” tends to increase under the same circumstances. Rouhani’s UN speech is one example of this phenomenon, and the regime’s response to last Saturday’s terror attack on a military parade in Ahvaz is another.
At a funeral for victims of that attack, the acting head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vowed “revenge” against a “triangle of enemies” comprised of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, though Iranian officials have failed to cite any evidence to support their official position that these foreign powers support the Iranian Arab separatists who claimed responsibility for the attack.
Naturally, such threats against foreign powers tend to generate backlash and contribute to an overarching war of words. Iran and Israel exchanged threats and accusations on Thursday when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his time before the UN to accuse the Islamic Republic of maintaining a “secret atomic warehouse” while the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council declared that continued Israeli action against Iranian military assets in Syria will result in the Jewish state facing “reactions that will cause regret.”
Earlier in the week, at a Washington summit for the group United Against Nuclear Iran, representatives of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates raised the prospect of regime change in the Islamic Republic, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir asking, “How can we negotiate with a state that wants to kill us?”
Jubeir also hinted at the possibility of regime change coming from with the Islamic Republic itself when he noted that the widely sought after changes in the Iranian government’s behavior are only likely to emerge if “the pressure internally is extremely intense.”
Internal pressure has indeed been growing more intense since the end of last year, when the Islamic Republic was rocked by a mass anti-government uprising that has since spurred numerous related protests. But while the US has expressed support for those protests, it now remains to be seen whether the nations of Europe will do the same.
But if Iran continues to expand upon its foreign-oriented efforts to distract from domestic crises, it may eventually encourage backlash from European policymakers that have so far sought to work with the regime to protect the nuclear deal.