IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

Iranian women have excelled in the sport of “futsal,” a variation of soccer played on a smaller, hard court. The Iranian team in May 2018 reconfirmed its top position in Asian futsal, winning the championship match 5-2 over Japan with a dazzling five goals in the second half.

Success in the sport has brought pride to Iranian women and shown that it is possible to empower women within an Islamic framework. It has also underlined controversy over the government’s treatment of women athletes and fans, in particular the continued ban on women attending sports events in stadiums where men are also present.

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US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, and thus re-impose broad sanctions against the Islamic Republic, sends a clear signal that Washington has reverted to a full containment policy against Tehran. But, lacking a clear overarching Middle East strategy, US policymakers do not appear to be weighing the merits of this pursuit in the context of the United States’ long-term rivalries with China and Russia. While Tehran’s contentious relations with its neighbors to the west are the subject of intense focus, inadequate attention is being paid to the geostrategic implications of transformations to Iran’s east. A new “Great Game” for political and economic dominance is being waged in Eurasia that will impact the lives of almost two-thirds of the world’s population, and could lead to a further weakening of Western influence over the international system. China and India are currently in the lead, with Russia following closely in the hopes of shaping any outcome to its advantage. The Europeans lag behind, and Trump’s Iran containment strategy risks further holding them back.

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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 it 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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Though Iran has thus far remained in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal could be the first domino to fall, setting off a chain of escalatory events throughout the region. 

“This change is US policy is happening at a time when the region is really combustible,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, president of Gryphon Partners and an Atlantic Council board director. Ultimately, the regional impact of US President Donald J. Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw from the JCPOA will depend on Tehran, and what it decides to do next: play nice on the world stage, or retaliate in its own backyard.  

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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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