IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

Hezbollah’s emergence as the strongest political faction during the Lebanese May elections confirms Iran’s sway over Lebanon, with the party now capable of securing an unchallenged veto at the parliamentary level and an absolute majority if its secures the right alliances. The recent electoral results also underline Hezbollah’s continued grip over its community despite ongoing governance challenges, and could herald instability for the Land of the Cedar amid escalating regional tensions.

The May 6 Lebanese elections granted Hezbollah a comfortable majority. “Hezbollah’s block is unwavering since 2009, with thirteen seats for the organization. The main difference is that now, with allies such as the Syrian Nationalist Progressive Party, Amal, the Baathist movement, and the Marada’s advances in parliament (included in the hard March 8 core), the coalition is now in control of forty-five seats, which represent a third of Lebanese parliament,” said electoral expert Kamal Feghali in an interview with the author. The March 8 alliance is headed by Hezbollah and aligned with the policies of Iran and Syria. 

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Several years ago, Henry Kissinger famously stated that Iran must decide if it wants to be a country or a cause. On May 21, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo re-articulated this question, offering Iran a sharp choice: to be welcomed back into the community of nations if it abandons its destabilizing security policies or be subjected to an unrelenting US-led pressure campaign if not.

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The day before widespread protests broke out in Iran last December, Vida Movahed, 31, stood on a utility box in Tehran, took off her white headscarf and waved it before a crowd.

In the weeks since then, dozens of other women have done the same, earning the nickname the “Women of Enghelab [Revolution] Street.” Their acts of disobedience against compulsory veiling in the Islamic Republic have been conflated with the economic protests that convulsed Iran for several weeks and that continue sporadically. But the economic demonstrations were largely by young men in provincial cities and towns; the hijab protests, mostly confined to Tehran, should be seen as a parallel movement and not an extension of the economic protests.

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The European Union (EU) on May 18 announced that it was beginning the process to activate its proposed blocking regulation, initially proposed in 1996 to try to counteract what the EU saw as the extraterritorial reach under the United States’ Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) and Cuba sanctions program. Those disagreements were settled politically with the Clinton administration, but there has been renewed interest in the draft regulation in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimpose US secondary sanctions on Iran.  

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In an audacious speech before the Heritage Foundation on May 21, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined a litany of complaints about the nuclear deal with Iran that accurately reflected some of its gaps, but offered no realistic remedies.

Pompeo’s prescription to achieve his “Plan B”—“unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime”—is unlikely to achieve his stated goals. It could well backfire by encouraging more defiance in Tehran—and in Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing.

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The Trump administration, acting through Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), has wasted no time in setting a harried pace of Iran-related designations to up the pressure after the president announced the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8. In the seven business days following that fateful announcement, OFAC has issued four sets of Iran-related designations targeting Iran’s support for terrorism in what seems to be an attempt to replicate the maximum pressure campaign against North Korea that helped spur a leadership summit to negotiate denuclearization (albeit one that seems less certain than a week ago). These actions have come alongside a concerted effort by the administration to pressure foreign companies, especially in Europe, to cease business with Iran prior to the expiration of secondary sanctions waivers in August and November. 

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US President Donald J. Trump delivered on his campaign promise and finally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal; a giant question mark looms.

When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed in July 2015, the priority for the P5+1 was to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The United States also hoped to eventually see reforms in Iran. For Iran, the priority was the lifting of sanctions.

How far back the deal set Iran’s nuclear weapons program is up for debate. Critics of the deal argue that, not only did the JCPOA fail to prevent Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons, but it freed up more cash for nefarious activities in the region vis-à-vis Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran defends its activities in these states as necessary to clean up problems the United States and Saudi Arabia created.

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In the aftermath of the US announcement that it was quitting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the other signatories are struggling to convince Iran to remain within the agreement.

European officials have been particularly outspoken, reflecting anger at a potentially fatal blow to a signature diplomatic achievement that touches their core security concerns. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, addressed the press before the start of a European Union summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, by saying, “We are witnessing today a new phenomenon: the capricious assertiveness of the American administration…. [President Donald Trump] has made us realize that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.” 

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Last year’s attacks in Tehran by Islamic State recruits reflect Shia Iran’s ambiguous, inconsistent and at times contradictory relationship with Sunni Salafists.

While tough on extremist groups threatening its sovereignty or military presence in Syria, the Iranian government has often turned a blind eye to such groups to allow them to fight US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and to undercut secular nationalist Iranian Kurds.

The United States and other Western nations, as well as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have often used jihadis to counter nationalist and leftist insurgencies, overthrow adversarial governments or oust foreign occupiers. Unlike these other countries, there is no evidence that Iran has actually financed, armed, or trained Salafi jihadis.

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In the aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian hardliners have called on the government to also pull out and immediately accelerate Iran’s nuclear program.

Kayhan, a newspaper that is considered the mouthpiece of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Javan, an outlet close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, both said Iran should restart its nuclear project. “Trump has torn up the nuclear deal, it is time for us to burn it,” Kayhan wrote. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari told Fars News that the US exit from the JCPOA was a "good omen" for Iran and called for boosting Iran's defense capabilities. Some hardline analysts went as far to suggest that the IRGC should use the situation to stage a military coup.

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