IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

A recent decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding US sanctions against Iran is an important success story for the Islamic Republic.

The ICJ decreed on October 3 that Washington must insure that its sanctions don’t adversely impact humanitarian goods or civil aviation safety in Iran. Even though the Trump administration rejected the rulingand the ICJ lacks the means to enforce its decisionit still carries a great deal of soft power in the court of international public opinion.

Facing a US administration that rejects international agreements and attempts to get its way through unilateral pressure, Iran has increasingly been turning to international fora and to public diplomacy. Victories in this arena come at a time when public awareness is at its peak and media of all sorts is increasingly user-friendly and accessible.    

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Appearing at a conservative think tank in Washington in May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented a list of twelve demands that Iran had to meet for the Trump administration to consider new negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

The list covered a wide range of what the US calls Iran’s “malign activities,” from its continued enrichment of uranium—allowed in limited quantities by the nuclear deal President Donald Trump discarded—to its regional interventions and ballistic missile program.

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Gruesome details of the possible premeditated killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi state actors are gradually being revealed. This has invited inevitable comparisons between the brutality of Saudi Arabia to its regional rival, Iran.

While the comparisons have prompted a fair number of social media snipes and tu quoque arguments, the parallels here are important to consider for a range of reasons.

Primary among them are the lessons it imparts for how the international community’s handling of Tehran’s own practice of killing dissidents abroad during the 1980s and 1990s should provide every incentive for a more robust response from the United States and other involved actors to the events involving Khashoggi.

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Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supported by religious conservatives, has the last word on major Iranian policy decisions, including relations with the United States. His long-standing position has been “no talks, no relations with America,” especially after US unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May.

But there are signs that this hard line is softening.

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament’s influential national security and foreign policy commission, said in a recent interview, “There is a new diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America. There is room for adopting the diplomacy of talk and lobbying by Iran with the [political] current which opposes [the policies of] Trump [toward Iran]… The diplomatic channel with America should not be closed because America is not just about Trump.”

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The family of Kavous Seyed Emami, a prominent environmentalist and professor at Tehran’s Imam Sadegh University, broke the horrific news on February 10 that he had died under suspicious circumstances while in detention. Iranian authorities claimed he had committed suicide.

Only a few weeks earlier, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence arm had arrested Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian citizen, and seven other environmental activists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that works to conserve and protect endangered species in Iran.

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The broad economic sanctions that go back into effect against Iran on November 5 will not significantly impact Iran’s limited natural gas exports. Iran’s export potential could emerge as a gateway to cooperation under an appropriate US strategy.

Multinational negotiations have focused on ways to increase oil production to compensate for Iranian oil lost to sanctions. However, more attention should be focused on natural gas. The global demand for natural gas is increasing, a shortage is looming, and Iran owns the second largest proved natural gas reserves in the world—totaling 33.2 trillion cubic meters or approximately a 17.2 percent share. Renewed economic sanctions will significantly hinder Iran’s ability to attract foreign investment necessary to monetize its vast reserves. However, some of Iran’s natural gas trading partners may not be compelled to cease imports, at least for the time being.

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Enacting legislation against money laundering and terrorism financing has been a long struggle between the Iranian parliament, which is dominated by moderate conservatives and reformists, and the Guardian Council, whose members are largely appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Parliament passed several laws in time for a meeting that began October 14 of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global body that monitors financial transparency and counter-terrorism financing. Over 800 officials representing 204 institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, United Nations and World Bank, attended the meeting. Fulfilling the obligations set by FATF is crucial for Iran to avoid a FATF blacklist, continue to connect with the international banking system and benefit from trade relations with European countries and China at a time when Iran’s economy is facing resumed US sanctions.

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In quitting the Iran nuclear deal and doubling down on traditional US alliances, the Trump administration has forfeited key leverage and reduced its ability to resolve conflicts in the Middle East.

Some readjustment in US policy after the Barack Obama administration was expected and potentially useful. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia felt that the US had slighted their interests in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which placed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program but did not address Iran’s military and political intervention in Arab states.

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Since the 1979 revolution, Azadi Square has been the beating heart for major demonstrations in Iran’s capital. So when the Iranian judiciary announced on September 24 that “financial corruptors” would be hung in the square—a first—it was seen as a dire warning to corrupt traders and government officials that they would be made an example of for the rest of the country.

Weeks later on October 1, three men were sentenced to death for financial corruption. They included a gold dealer nicknamed the “sultan of coins” by Iranian media for collecting two tons worth of gold coins and selling them at inflated rates. The men are currently appealing the sentences. Then on October 6, Interpol extradited to Tehran an Iranian businessman who fled after defrauding thousands of investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars after they purchased gold coins on a website.

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Since the Iranian regime seized power in 1979, its goal has been for Iran to become a regional power and to restore the Shias as the rulers of the Muslim world. A cornerstone of its strategy is to build and control a land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea.

To extend its power and influence, Iran arms and supports proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as Shia militias in Iraq and Syria.

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