New Economic Pressures on Iran Take Hold, Reinvigorating Talk of Regime Change

By Mahmoud Hakamian

Following the Trump administration’s recent addition of new economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, reports are beginning to emerge to suggest that the strategy of “maximum pressure” is having a significant effect.

Early in April, the White House announced that it would be following through on oft-discussed plans to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary institution of the Iranian government, as a foreign terrorist organization. Then, about two weeks later, the administration declared an end to waivers for the importation of Iranian oil by eight foreign nations. The preexisting waivers are due to expire on Thursday, at which point global markets may move rapidly toward the Trump team’s goal of bringing Iran’s oil exports as close as possible to zero.

The Financial Times was among the outlets to report on the prospective effects of this and other pressures, and it noted that the rate of inflation in the Islamic Republic is now on pace to reach nearly 40 percent this year. This figure was provided by the International Monetary Fund, but those calculations could still be adjusted as observers gauge the level of international compliance with the latest measures following the end of this week.

For its part, Bloomberg suggested that the inflation rate could reach even higher, to 50 percent. This would be the worst such indicator since 1980, when Iran began fighting an eight-year war against neighboring Iraq, just one year after the Iranian Revolution established the nation’s theocratic government. Bloomberg also pointed out that the new US pressures were only poised to accelerate already-established trends, which stem from preexisting sanctions but also from frequent and severe mismanagement and misappropriation by the regime in Tehran.

The Trump administration has publicly sought to exploit the Iranian people’s awareness of this situation, and some of the latest reports on the sanctions’ effects suggest that it is having success in doing so. This was explicitly stated by the Financial Times, whose report noted that public discontent had been on the rise in the Islamic Republic at the same time that tensions between different political factions appeared to be worsening.

But both of these trends were also firmly established beforehand. At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, for instance, nearly every major city and town in the Islamic Republic became the site of anti-government protests that originally stemmed from economic grievances. The tone of those protests, however, took on messaging that included explicit calls for regime change. This in turn marked the beginning of what the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), described as a “year full of uprisings.”

To date, the Trump administration has not endorsed the MEK or any other dissident organization by name, and it has steadfastly declined to use the phrase “regime change” in describing its Iran strategy. Yet many experts on Iranian affairs and US foreign policy have discerned that that is the subtext of the administration’s public statements and its cumulative policy initiatives.

President Trump and his foreign policy advisers have arguably come close to referencing regime change at times, as when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in the midst of Iran’s mass uprising and expressed interest in helping the Iranian people to find success in their struggle against the clerical regime. Then, in May, after the US withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, it was widely reported that the White House was examining plans to help unspecified dissidents undermine their government’s hold on power. Around the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined a general Iran strategy in which he identified the administration’s goal as compelling the regime to fundamentally change its behavior in a dozen key areas.

Critics of the Trump administration have rejected that goal as unfeasible, while some of its supporters have embraced it on the understanding that it constitutes a coded reference to a complete change of government. This point was reiterated on Monday by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, during a Bloomberg television interview. Haass expressed some confusion about the administration’s endgame and its pathway to getting there, but he acknowledged that the changes outlined by Pompeo are “tantamount to regime change.”

Haass joined the administration’s foreign policy critics in rejecting this prospect out of hand. But two days earlier, the exiled Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi appeared on Al Jazeera news to defend her full-throated support for the goal of regime change. Her interviewer indicated that this represented a fairly recent, assertive turn in the policy position of the long-time critic of the Iranian regime. But Ebadi stated that reform has been attempted by various methods, only to fail and expose the reality that meaningful change is not achievable under the existing Iranian constitution.

In comments with more bearing on the Trump administration’s controversial Iran strategy, Ebadi also said that she supported economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, provided that those sanctions do not harm the public. It was not clear whether she believes the latest American actions to meet this standard, but other opponents of the Iranian regime have responded favorably to them.

The PMOI and its parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran, for instance, were quick to issue statements in support of the administration’s announcement of terrorist designation for the Revolutionary Guards. An intelligence network affiliated with the PMOI has long since determined that the regime’s hardline paramilitary effectively controls well over half the country’s gross domestic product and plays a leading role in the misappropriation of public funds for terrorist activities and foreign interventions.

Being tasked with defending the Islamic revolution at home and exporting it abroad, the IRGC also plays some role in the creation and dissemination of Iranian propaganda. Furthermore, this is one aspect of the Iranian regime’s activities and strategy for retaining power that was directly addressed by Ebadi on Saturday. As an example of sanctions that would harm the regime but not the people, the dissident activist suggested barring Tehran from access to Western satellites, so as to limit the reach of its foreign-language propaganda networks.

“How do you think that some of the Syrian, Lebanese or Yemeni youth support Iran? It's through the same TV networks that lure the young people,” she explained. The MEK and NCRI have identified Tehran’s foreign influence as a central feature of its strategy for preserving the clerical regime. The dissident organizations have also recommended that the US expand upon President Trump’s recent actions by also extending terrorist designation to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, another hardline entity that stands alongside the IRGC in activities related both to propaganda and to the planning of foreign attacks.

No doubt the MEK and NCRI regard restrictions on both of these entities as a step in the direction of domestically-driven regime change as well. And in light of the aforementioned interpretation of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy, it is somewhat likely that the White House sees this outcome as a possible benefit of “maximum pressure,” as well.

Iranian activists have already clashed with security forces including the IRGC on numerous occasions. This was the case during the uprising at the beginning of 2018 and during the failed government response to devastating flooding during much of this past month. Opinions are certain to vary over whether such clashes, in the context of international pressure on the Iranian government, signify a potential for regime change. But in any event, public discussions regarding Iranian affairs seems ever more inclined to examine that question.

Indeed, even Iranian officials have taken to highlighting the possible subtext of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy. According to the Financial Times, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif specifically expressed his belief that the purpose of the latest US sanctions is to encourage domestic unrest for the sake of regime change. The same report also quoted Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s foreign special operations Quds Force, as underscoring the regime’s refusal to compromise on its hardline policies in order to forestall that outcome.

“The enemy wants to draw us to the negotiating table by imposing economic pressure,” Suleimani said. “This kind of negotiation is just as good as giving in, but our people are vigilant and smart and believe that negotiating with the enemy in the current situation is a clear act of surrender. We certainly will not bow to this humiliation.”