IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

US President Donald J. Trump’s administration will reimpose sanctions on Iran’s central bank, oil sales, and shipping companies on November 5. These sanctions, the last of those the US lifted in 2016 as a consequence of the Iran nuclear deal, are likely to be coupled with new sanctions that are designed to achieve greater pressure than what the Obama administration imposed on Iran to enter negotiations over its nuclear program. 

The sanctions that snap back into place on November 5 largely mirror those that the Obama administration lifted in January 2016. While fewer in numbers than those reimposed on August 6 by Executive Order (EO) 13846 issued by Trump, they are among the most powerful as they expand the primary blocking sanctions available for US designations and represent the bulk of the secondary sanctions on Iran. 

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IranSource interviewed several ex-heads of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, to ask their thoughts on Iran. Three of the six living directors agreed to speak.* They painted varying pictures of Iran as a nation and threat in addition to mixed views on the US decision to quit the nuclear agreement in May.

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The European Union’s announcement in September 2018 that it would begin to create a special payments channel with Iran in response to the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) once again raises the question of the role of the US dollar (USD) in the international economic order. Under the surface of discussions of alternative payment mechanisms is the legitimate question of the negative impacts of US coercive economic statecraft on the USD status as the leading global reserve currency.

Some argue that if Iran shifted to euro-denominated transactions, it could spark a broader shift within energy exporting countries that would eventually weaken the USD as the reserve currency, as well as undermine the impact of future unilateral US sanctions. William Rich of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Treasury diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, however, argues that the proposed Europe-Iran payment mechanism is “impractical because such a process would be inefficient and costly and could not guarantee European firms protection from US sanctions, reputational damage, or Iranian misuse.  It is most effective as public messaging to the Iranians that Europe is trying to resist American pressure.”

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Much of the Iranian opposition abroad is thrilled with anticipation these days.

It is looking forward to the resumption of US secondary sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and Central Bank on November 5, and the hard blow the Iranian economy is expected to take as a result. The opposition, along with some key members of the Trump administration, appears to hope that the economic pressure will prompt nationwide street protests and ultimately lead to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and its replacement by a more democratic, secular government.

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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 November 5.

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

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With international attention glued to the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi for the past few weeks, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States have struggled to gain the upper hand over the narrative while Iran has largely been a contented bystander.

The crime has weakened the position of Iran’s arch rival at least temporarily and severely undermined, if not, destroyed the “reformist image” of powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Subsequent denials and clumsy cover-ups have further damaged Saudi Arabia’s reputation and could indeed upset the power balance in the Middle East.

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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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