IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

You would not know it from reading the news, but the Iran nuclear deal is still alive. The Europeans, however, are faced with an impossible task: to preserve an international agreement that cannot survive without Washington’s backing in the face of an aggressive US posture toward Tehran.

In May, US President Donald J. Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal calling it “decaying and rotten.” The United States next re-imposed a first batch of economic sanctions on Iran in early August. Multinational companies have started leaving Iran even before the November 4 deadline by when Washington will enact a renewed oil and gas embargo on the country. All this even as the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), last week confirmed that Tehran continues to broadly abide by its obligations under the 2015 deal. That confirmation coincided with a meeting of the European Union’s foreign ministers in Vienna to discuss Europe’s position toward Iran.

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The Iranian regime has successfully navigated difficulties over the past four decades, such as domestic infighting after the 1979 revolution, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the ensuing economic difficulties, and the controversy over its nuclear program during the mid-2000s. Many analysts believe that these tests immunized the regime to threats. Recent months, however, have proved that might not always be the case.

It’s well known that the Iranian regime’s already shaky domestic popularity has plummeted to an unprecedented degree, especially among the working class and poor. The recent demonstrations—which broke out in more than eighty provincial towns and cities across Iran—highlight a massive decline in the regime’s support among its loyal rural base. The Iranian people are now publicly denouncing the regime in the streets, with protesters openly condemning Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the government. The problems are compounded by massive corruption among the government elite, as Iran continues to suffer from growing inflation, poverty, and unemployment. All these problems have led to an economic crisis, with the national currency in rapid freefall since US President Donald Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

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“Iran suggested to me a massive Potemkin village, a facade with people at the top partying and people below struggling,” a cable from the US Embassy in Tehran read during the late 1970s.

Not much has changed since the turban replaced the crown in 1979, except that now the party is behind closed doors and the wealth is displayed on social media for much of Iran to scroll through.

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Iran is no stranger to the global digital security community. This week, cybersecurity firm FireEye released a report about a network of Iranian accounts and groups on social media platforms attempting to manipulate users and also hack their accounts. Though big stories like this tend to focus on Iranian cyber attacks against Western government interests and infrastructure, these networks of hackers are also causing major trouble for Iranian citizens as well.

Certfa, a digital security firm focusing on Iranian cyber threats, recently discovered a new range of criminal activities by Iranian hackers, which is costing Iran’s citizens millions of dollars each year. Their latest scheme is PushIran.DL, a malware that allows fraudulent ads to pop-up on Android devices, the most popular mobile device used by Iranians. According to Certfa’s investigation, over 1.3 million Android devices are infected with PushIran.DL, although it’s believed that up to 10 million devices may be infected.

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The Trump Administration’s May 2018 decision to pull the US out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) made headlines with its promise of unprecedented sanctions against Iran. Strong rhetoric aside, President Trump’s stated policy outcomes are consistent with those of his predecessors: preventing Iran from advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities, discouraging support for terrorism and other unsavory regional activities, and curbing human rights abuses.

In light of these similarities, and on the heels of the re-imposition of post-JCPOA sanctions on August 7, the National Security Archive’s recent release of declassified cables from President Bill Clinton’s State Department is extremely timely. The documents are particularly useful when compared to President Barack Obama’s efforts a decade later, and illuminate the pitfalls of the Trump approach to Iran sanctions.

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This August marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War ending. This tragic eight-year conflict was a transformable event for Tehran and Baghdad. There were over one million casualties on both sides, and the conflict effectively transformed the entire Middle East, too.

The narrative of “futile war” comes to mind when one tries to look at the Iran-Iraq War objectively and retrospectively. Who lost? Or, perhaps one should ask, who gained at the end of this almost decade conflict? The war had many air and ground battles across the 1,000 km border that neither Iraq nor Iran was able to declare permanent victory, or force their will and agenda on the ceasefire which took place on August 20, 1988.

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Every so often, the Iranian Committee to Find Missing Soldiers of the Iran-Iraq War announces the return of soldiers’ remains. A funeral procession of coffins draped with the Iranian flag—sometimes only containing a dog tag—is followed by hordes of Iranians wailing and mourning, as if the eight-year war only ended yesterday.

To this date, tens of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi families await news of their shahid-e gomnam, nameless martyrs. These images are a reminder of the sacrifices made thirty years ago and tells of a country in perpetual mourning about that very war. It also speaks to a reality: Each recovered shahid-e gomnam reinforces Iran’s foreign policy today.

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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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