By Edward Carney
In an interview with CBS News on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif continued contributing to Tehran’s defiant narratives regarding US sanctions, which will come back into full effect on November 4 as the Trump administration completes its withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The US president and his foreign policy team have repeatedly made it clear that they intend to exert maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic through new and re-imposed sanctions, as well as other diplomatic pressures. Zarif attempted to dismiss that goal, reiterating the Iranian regime’s assertion that the US is “addicted” to sanctions and that such measures do not have the intended effect of changing the policies or behaviors of the targeted government.
Nevertheless, the foreign minister did acknowledge that US sanctions would increase economic pain, although he insisted that key economic indicators had already bottomed out and that the government had already begun compensating for the forthcoming conditions.
CBS noted that the threat of renewed sanctions was alone sufficient to deepen an already ongoing economic crisis in the Islamic Republic, sending the value of Iran’s national currency, the rial, to record lows.
This in turn has contributed to widespread domestic unrest, which has notably taken aim not at the US government and supporters of economic sanctions but at the Iranian regime and its economic mismanagement.
This situation belies Zarif’s claim, in Sunday’s interview, that economic sanctions are particularly harmful to the Iranian public and that the Iranian government is fulfilling its obligation to alleviate that harm. Recent anti-government protests specifically allege otherwise, calling attention, for instance, to the clerical regime’s extensive long-term spending on the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the associated build-up of regional militias tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
CBS pointed out that Zarif declined to comment on how the latest round of sanctions might impact the ongoing domestic unrest, but many observers, including activists of the opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, believe that US-led sanctions will be a source of encouragement rather than a source of pain.
This expectation is based in part on the fact that the IRGC controls the majority of Iran’s gross domestic product, either directly or through a series of front companies, and as such is one of the main beneficiaries of sanctions relief.
Conversely, the return of sanctions and the imposition of new, targeted sanctions may be expected to weaken the IRGC, which is one of the main instruments of repression inside the Islamic Republic, as well as being tasked with the exportation of the Islamic revolution.
Soon after taking office, the Trump administration moved more aggressively than its predecessors against the IRGC, opening the entire organization and not merely its foreign expeditionary Quds Force to sanctions focused on the support of international terrorism.
Despite this, not all Iran hawks in the US Congress are fully satisfied with the administration’s performance in this area, or at least not all of them are prepared to take the White House’s assertive approach for granted.
This was the focus of an Associated Press report on Monday, which noted that a number of Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would sanction any government or financial institution that continues to do business with Iran through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT.
The report described the relevant legislators as being “angered” by the suggestion that the sanctions measures on November 4 may not include barring Iran from this crucial mechanism for international transactions.
It also quoted Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as saying, “The president asked for maximum pressure, not semi-maximum pressure. Maximum pressure includes disconnecting Iranian banks from SWIFT.”
Such commentary speaks to the perceived importance of leaving no stone unturned in the effort to isolate the Islamic Republic. And that perception is perhaps underscored by past and ongoing efforts by the Iranian regime and its partners to evade sanctions.
The UK’s Telegraph recalled attention to one such effort on Monday when it reported upon details surrounding the guilty verdicts for Paul and Iris Attwater, who were reportedly “groomed” by an intermediary to unwittingly provide aircraft parts to Iranian buyers which also had potential applications to Iran’s military nuclear program.
Although the case dates back to before the nuclear agreement and the suspension of some sanctions, it is indicative of an ongoing pattern of behavior. Multiple American and European intelligence reports have identified dozens of instances of Iranian agents attempting to procure banned equipment in recent years.
These and other sanctions-busting efforts are poised to further proliferate after November 4, if neither all nor most of the United States’ international partners come into compliance with the sanctions and abandon their plans to provide Iran with additional incentives to remain a party to the nuclear deal even in America’s absence.
The possibility of greater international assistance for Iranian sanctions evasion may be a motivating factor behind the Republicans’ efforts to proactively sanction anyone who uses SWIFT to do business with Iran.
But the same international defiance may also explain why the White House is allegedly contemplating what Goldberg described as only “semi-maximum pressure.” That is to say that the Trump administration may be wary of further alienating its European allies after having already butted heads with them over this and other matters.
This does not necessarily entail an overall reduction in pressure, provided that the administration compensates for absent measures by imposing others with comparable effect. And fortunately for Iran hawks and Iranian anti-government activists who are frustrated with European conciliation, the current American strategy for Iran is not overly reliant on fellow Western powers.
As evidenced by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s trip to Riyadh last week, the Trump administration is working aggressively to develop an anti-Iranian alliance within the Middle East, the presence of which may intensify the effects of unilateral economic sanctions.
Anxiety over Iran’s regional role has proven to be a powerful motivator for cooperation and reconciliation, and on Saturday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored this fact on a trip to Oman – the first by an Israeli leader in 24 years. According to Al Jazeera, Netanyahu praised the increasing closeness between his country and its Gulf Arab neighbors, specifically crediting mutual opposition to Iran for the positive development.
The comments came soon after Israeli officials laid the blame squarely on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for recent rocket attacks coming out of Gaza. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that Palestinian Islamic Jihad was receiving “guidance, instruction and incentives” from the Quds Force in Damascus.
The apparently ongoing development of Iranian terrorist networks in the broader Middle East may prove to be a significant disincentive for European efforts to support Iran’s position with regard to the nuclear deal.
But in any event, with the second round of sanctions looming on November 4 and supported by a number of Tehran’s adversaries both at home and abroad, there is little reason to believe that the Iranian foreign minister or other officials are sincerely confident when they say the sanctions will have no effect on the regime’s policies or behaviors.