IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

Before joining the Trump administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton penned an article on how to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement. In it, he also advocated helping ethnic minorities in Iran. Like previous American administrations, the Trump Administration seeks regime change in Tehran. And like the current White House, but more fervently, the Washington establishment assumes Iranian minorities will join in what is being called in certain circles “transformative change.”

Recent nationwide demonstrations in Iran—over the state of the economy, Tehran’s regional activities, corruption, and general disenchantment with the Islamic government—are strengthening the Trump administration’s hopes. But attempts to catalyze religious or ethnic minority protests as a means to transform the Islamic Republic have been a failed US policy for almost as long as the theocracy has existed. This time will be no different. History demonstrates ethnic and religious minorities will neither spur nor lead regime change.

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The burly, graying men in the mismatched camouflage arrived in the late winter of 2003, setting up camp within the green hilly folds of northern Iraq. They were members of the Badr Brigade, a Shia fighting force that had been sheltering in exile inside Iran during the reign of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. They told visitors that they were Iraqi patriots returning to their country to help take on Saddam at the invitation of the Iraqi Kurds.

But the stickers on the Badr militamen’s outdated equipment immediately gave their origins away: “Property of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” the major branch of the Iranian armed forces. Their history as a veritable Iraqi unit of the IRGC during the war between the two countries was known to all Iraqis.

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The Trump administration’s policy toward Iran aims for regime change. Possibly US President Donald Trump dreams of reaching some bold deal with the current leadership of Iran, but he has not laid out any feasible route to one. The administration’s dominant hope instead seems to be that stepped-up economic pressure will somehow lead disaffected Iranians to rise up against their rulers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s most recent speech on Iran was essentially a call to do just that. 

Earlier this year, Pompeo enumerated a list of demands on Iran so sweeping that they seem designed—like the demands that Austria-Hungary placed on Serbia in 1914—to be rejected. Sixty-five years ago this month occurred the one instance in which the United States was involved in a change of regime in Iran: the ouster in August 1953 of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

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On Monday, US President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order detailing the framework for re-imposing sanctions on Iran, which were lifted under the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) nuclear deal, with the goal of getting Iran back to the table to negotiate a deal covering not just Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but also Tehran’s other malign activity. Immediately after issuing the order, Trump tweeted that these were the most biting sanctions ever and would be ratcheted up to another level in November.  This is, of course, not true. 

The sanctions the administration is re-imposing in two waves (August and November) on Iran are effectively the same sanctions that were in place in 2013 and led to the JCPOA negotiations.  Unlike 2013, the Trump administration does not have the full support of the international community and is not bolstered by several United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran to generate maximum pressure on Tehran.  Instead, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA has caused an ugly split with our European allies who passed a blocking regulation preventing EU companies from complying with US sanctions on Iran and has drawn the ire of the other deal signatories, China and Russia, and key partners–such as Turkey, India, Japan, and South Korea–who went along with US sanctions in 2013. 

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Just a few weeks ago, it seemed that the Iran nuclear deal could be saved. Now, it is highly likely that, even if the agreement is not formally cancelled, it will soon become a façade without any real meaning.

President Donald Trump’s recent threats to block any companies still engaging with Iran from business in the US are a clear and serious incentive for foreign firms to leave Iran as soon as possible. Despite European Union (EU) efforts to protect companies and neutralize US threats, major European businesses have already announced their departures.

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As the first set of US sanctions against Iran went back into effect Aug. 7, India is applying its negotiations skills—effectively, so far—toward managing relations with both sides. 

The United States and its Persian Gulf Arab allies may be able to provide India with enough crude to offset any reduction in India’s oil imports from Iran. But will Delhi give in to the Trump administration’s pressure to cut Iranian oil imports completely by Nov. 4, thereby endangering a long-standing relationship with Tehran that goes beyond energy?

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While the world’s attention was on US President Donald Trump’s Twitter war with Tehran the other week, some good news in Iran escaped notice. A group of women’s rights activists arrested in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs on International Women’s Day were acquitted, after initially being charged for planning and participating in a protest on the economic situation of women. Many feared the mass arrests would result in heavy sentences and be used as a justification to crackdown on rights defenders who have slowly managed to rebuild the Iranian women’s movement over the last few years.

The acquittal of the twenty-one activists seemed to confirm that part of the security apparatus isn’t fully intent on cracking down on women’s groups, and that some of their peaceful activities would be tolerated. This message was echoed by Shahindokht Mowlaverdi—a staunch advocate of women’s rights and special advisor to the president on citizens’ rights—who in a recent interview promised that the Rouhani administration was working to ease social, cultural, and political pressures. However, Mowlaverdi also warned that “the [Rouhani] government is not the only entity in charge of these sectors,” referring to the Judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who are responsible for much of the crackdowns and pressures over the years.

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The news coming out of Iran these days tells the story of a country in crisis. The economy is sliding towards collapse, even before the first round of US sanctions were reinstated on August 6. Nationwide protests are calling for regime change—a dirty word in Tehran up until recently. The Iranian government and its military leaders speak openly about looming conflicts. Ironically, only a few months ago, there were talks of Iran as a rising regional power in an otherwise volatile Middle East.

So what are the major factors working against the Iranian government?

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The short answer is “No.” A family and an entourage that placed itself at the disposal of Iran while burning much of Syria to the ground will not prevail, provided the United States and its partners begin to push back. Yet termites are at work, and the fulfillment of this proviso is far from certain.

The Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, claims to oppose Iran’s domination of what is left of the Syrian state. Unlike his predecessor, US President Donald Trump did not hesitate to strike militarily when Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iran and Russia, twice assaulted defenseless civilians with sarin nerve agent. When Russian “military contractors” sought, in February of this year, to cross the Euphrates River to attack American-held positions, there was no ignominious retreat. On the contrary, the Kremlin learned a hard lesson about testing American resolve east of the Euphrates de-confliction line. Iranian-led Shia militias and regime military units have been similarly educated.

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The telephone conversation between Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama in 2013, the numerous talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during two years of nuclear negotiations, and a multilateral meeting last year that included Zarif and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, demolished many taboos in regard to direct contact between Iran and the US.

The US and Iran should negotiate, but meaningful steps need to be taken in advance and the objective must be to solve all major bilateral issues.

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