IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

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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During its last meeting in Paris on June 30, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) reviewed Iran’s action plan to address deficiencies in its anti-money laundering measures and counter financing of terrorism. The intergovernmental organization—which monitors money laundering and terrorist financing on a global level—is especially concerned with exemptions Iran has made in its counter financing laws to protect proxies it regards as liberation organizations, militant groups that share Iran’s anti-US and anti-Israel ideology. Such exemptions would allow Tehran to facilitate the financing of groups like Lebanese Hezbollah.

After much deliberation, FATF gave Iran four months—until its next plenary session in mid-October—to fully criminalize terrorism financing in line with international standards and relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions, with no exemptions.

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The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to uphold the third iteration of President Donald Trump’s travel ban falls hardest on Iranians – both those seeking to travel to the US and those in the US who cannot go home without jeopardizing their ability to return.

The situation is particularly dire for Iranians studying for graduate degrees, doing research and teaching at US universities. They can no longer leave for any destination because of fear that they will not be able to complete their studies or resume their research-affiliated positions. 

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The 2018 World Cup is over after a whirlwind month of matches, with France claiming the title. There was no shortage of engrossing stories from the tournament, with political drama undergirding the action. In Iran, for example, beyond the national team’s relatively impressive display, the country grabbed headlines off the pitch for allowing women to attend viewings of the men’s national team soccer matches.

On June 20, the Iranian government allowed women to watch Team Melli’s World Cup match against Spain in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, reversing a ban on women attending male sporting events that has been in place—though not necessarily uniformly enforced— since 1981. After Islamic Revolution, women were prohibited from attending male sporting events as part of a broader cultural shift toward gender segregation and “public decency,” such as protecting women from hearing men swear. However, with soccer a hugely popular sport in Iran, women long have used disguises to sneak into games and also protested outside stadiums, leading to arrests by security forces. Over the years, civil society groups like OpenStadiums and Women in White Scarves—not to be confused with White Wednesdays, a campaign against the headscarf law—have campaigned for the right to attend sporting events, using op-eds in Western newspapers and social media to draw attention to their causes. FIFA has emerged as a target for activists aiming to apply pressure to the Iranian government.

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