IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

“If they impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.''

After a long week of Iran headlines – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laying out the administration’s Iran strategy, Presidents Trump and Rouhani trading implicit threats of war, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qassem Suleimani addressing Trump by name in a speech - one might be forgiven for mistaking the above as a recent quote.

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As part of the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US Treasury Department will restore sanctions on a number of key Iranian sectors and activities on August 6.

Here’s what you need to know about this set of sanctions:

What is the JCPOA?
The JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal is a 159-page document agreed to on July 14, 2015 by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—plus Germany with Iran. It traded curbs on Iran’s nuclear program for sanctions relief from the European Union, United States, and United Nations. The JCPOA went into implementation on January 16, 2016.

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It all started with a rumor. By July 28, many Iranians discussed the imminent release of the Green Movement leaders—Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi—who are under house arrest since early 2011 for leading the 2009 post-election protests. Karroubi’s son, Hossein, said that a “credible source” had informed him that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) had ruled in favor of releasing the trio. “They said that if the Supreme Leader doesn’t declare an opinion in the next ten days, the council’s ruling will be executed,” Hossein told Ensaf News.

The ruling seemed reliable enough. As Iran’s political and economic crises piled on in recent months, many reformists have called on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to show gestures toward national reconciliation. Releasing the reformist leaders only made sense.

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Eight days ago, US President Donald J. Trump warned Hassan Rouhani of dire “consequences” should the Iranian president persist with his threats against the United States.

On July 30, Trump said he would be willing to meet with the Iranian leader at any time “with no preconditions.”

“If they [the Iranians] want to meet, we’ll meet,” Trump said at a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the White House in Washington.

Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said Trump’s willingness to meet the Iranian leader is “the textbook pressure and engagement strategy the United States has used for many years in dealing with rogue states.”

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The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and pursue a policy of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic has been coupled with a public diplomacy campaign in alleged support of the Iranian people. But the result is likely to be a stronger central government, as sanctions crush private enterprise and force beleaguered Iranians to turn to the regime for relief.

Sanctions are economic and diplomatic instruments that are designed to put pressure on the targeted state to convince it to comply with the demands from those imposing the sanctions. However, the degree of their effectiveness has long been subject to debate. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, proponents argue that it was “crippling” sanctions that forced Iran to seriously negotiate. While this is partly true, Iran continued to gain leverage during the course of the negotiations by advancing its nuclear know-how. By the time the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached, three years ago, Iran had a large inventory of centrifuges and had increased its expertise in other areas with potential military as well as civilian use. At the same time, the Iranian people paid a heavy price as a result of the sanctions.     

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Tehran – President Donald Trump’s all-cap Twitter threats that Iran would “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” if it got into a war with the United States has only compounded a sense of gloomy expectation in the Iranian capital.

Judging from this author’s recent visit to Tehran, Iranians are resigned to life getting even worse and are at a loss as to how to prevent that.

The imminent reintroduction of secondary sanctions has dashed expectations that life would improve in the wake of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. Prices of essential goods have almost doubled compared to a year ago, mainly due to the devaluation of the currency caused by the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and internal competition within the political elite.

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On July 22, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed an audience that included many members of the Iranian diaspora. The speech focused on the Iranian regime as a danger to its own people and to US interests—kleptocratic, terroristic, and totalitarian. The accusations were specific and the language was strong which could indicate a harsh new anti-Iran policy, especially given the broader context of the US administration’s belligerence toward Iran. Secretary Pompeo’s speech was followed shortly by US President Donald Trump’s social media threats directed at the Iranian leadership.

Given this harsh rhetoric on Iran and the demands that it withdraw from Syria and end support for Hezbollah among other capitulations, it is unclear whether this language is meant to deter. It could also signal the start of a meaningful anti-Iranian pushback after eight years of de-escalation under the Obama Administration. However, this approach does not meet the criteria for effective deterrence, and there is no sign of a robust rollback strategy. Instead, it just looks confusing.

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As is so often the case with the current occupant of the White House, a presidential tweet muddied the message of the rest of the Trump administration.

Iranians had been focusing on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Supporting Iranian Voices” event at the California-based Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. But shortly after Pompeo finished speaking on July 22 about US support for Iran’s beleaguered people, President Donald Trump tweeted an all caps warning to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” The tweet, which suggested the US was poised to destroy Iran, was posted just as Iranians were waking up on Monday morning.

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US President Donald J. Trump, in a late-night, all-caps tweet on July 22, threatened Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before” if Iranian leaders continued to threaten the United States with war.

Trump’s tweet was an apparent response to a comment by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Iranian diplomats in Tehran. “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” Rouhani said, according to Iran’s state news agency IRNA.

In many ways, Trump’s tweet has echoes of his Twitter outbursts against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which ultimately led to a summit between the two leaders in Singapore on June 12.

Iran, however, is a different kettle of fish.

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Among the oddest features of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address at the Reagan Library on July 22 -- billed as “Supporting Iranian Voices” – was the absence of any actual Iranian on the dias.

Pompeo was introduced by Fred Ryan, chairman of the board of the Reagan Foundation, and by Sen. Tom Cotton, a hawkish Republican from Arkansas. At the end, there was a brief question and answer session with former California governor Pete Wilson. In the front rows in the audience was a similarly non-ethnic crowd.

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