On 21 September, the Trump Administration announced a spate of new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear weapons programme and anyone found to be supplying conventional weapons and weapons technology to the Islamic Republic. The Trump Administration dubiously claims that it is enforcing the United Nations arms embargo under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that is set to expire on 18 October, and has called upon the European Union to follow its lead. Beyond the fact that the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA in early 2018, leaving it with no right to enforce its terms, the other signatories of the JCPOA (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) believe that negotiation is the best way to quell the nuclear threat stemming from Iran, not confrontation. The ayatollahs’ grip on Iran is weakening due to the state of the economy and public unrest, and the Trump administration should seek less confrontational ways to secure their interests in Iran instead of further punishing the Iranian people.
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Washington has been dogmatic in its portrayal of Iran as an existential threat to the US. Iran fits perfectly into the classic American idea of what a threat looks like; just like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Iran has a revolutionary ideology with a desire to export it, and is well connected with allies across the globe. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Iran’s military is technologically and numerically embarrassed by that of the US and its allies in the region, and its economy is roughly two per cent the size of the US, making that threat perception nothing less than absurd.
The Iranian economy is already reeling from previous US sanctions and Tehran’s economic maladministration. Inflation is constantly on the rise as purchasing power plummets, forcing Iranians to fight over basic commodities and forget “luxuries” such as red meat. The situation is dire, and despite US sanctions exacerbating the economic turmoil, it is the leadership that bears the brunt of Iranian protest. Similar to the protests seen in early 2018, protests broke out as a result of raised petrol prices in November 2019 and lasted until early 2020. It was, again, the ayatollahs who came under fire, with Iranians chanting “Death to Khamenei” and castigating him for Iran’s involvement in Syria and Lebanon. To compound the ayatollahs’ problems, after days of denial, it was finally admitted in January 2020 that Iranian air defence forces shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by accident, mistaking it for a hostile aircraft. This further reminded the Iranian public of their leadership’s incompetence. Then came COVID-19, another body blow to the Iranian leadership that highlighted their inability to protect their citizens and preference for misinformation and deceit.
With the clock ticking for the ayatollahs, and US actions affording them diplomatic isolation within the UN, why does the Trump Administration deem it necessary to impose more sanctions on Iran? Trump is possibly trying to raise the profile of the Iranian issue before the November election, stoking fear in the American public and their desire for his hardline leadership. Or, more bluntly, he is simply attempting to crush Iran.
It is not clear how far the Trump Administration is willing to go against their European allies, or how prepared they are to engage militarily with Iran. What is clear, nonetheless, is that the international community is not in accord with the Trump Administration’s decision, and that a military conflict in Iran would benefit nobody. The consequences of conflict or state collapse would burden the international community and would weaken the security framework in the Middle East.
The US would better serve itself by adopting a less confrontational approach towards Iran and ending its perpetual obsession with the Islamic Republic. Iran is not a security threat to the US, and regime change is more likely to come from internal pressures, not more sanctions. The US should instead employ its soft-power capacity, like expanding its Farsi media outreach to counter the Iranian leadership’s misinformation and propaganda, something that would further sow public unrest and distrust of the ayatollahs. Such initiatives would allow the US to focus on more pressing issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising Chinese threat. Anti-Americanism forms the core of the Iranian leadership’s ideology and more confrontation only provides them with incentives to double down on their rhetoric. As shown by the Obama Administration in crafting the JCPOA, negotiation can work, and it is timely for the Trump Administration to acknowledge its diplomatic options and end its oppressive campaign of “maximum pressure”.