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Raisi’s Death Presents a Rare Opportunity to Bring Iran to its Knees

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on the Azerbaijan-Iran border, May 19, 2024. Iran's Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on the Azerbaijan-Iran border, May 19, 2024. Iran's Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

The recent death of Iran’s President Raisi marks a significant juncture and presents a unique opportunity for the international community, led by the US, to force Tehran into serious negotiations regarding its nuclear program. Sanctions, often criticized for limited success, can be highly effective when imposed strategically during periods of political transition. Despite the supreme leader’s control over Iran’s strategic interests, as Iran navigates this leadership change, now is the time to leverage economic pressure to achieve a long-sought goal: a strong agreement that limits its nuclear ambitions.

Sanctions have emerged as a favored tool in the international community’s arsenal, serving as a non-military means to enforce compliance, deter aggression, and promote human rights. Historically, they have been employed against a spectrum of targets, from dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to terrorist organizations like Hamas. Their impact varies widely, depending on factors such as the target’s resilience, the scope of international cooperation, and the presence of alternative sources of support. However, when used appropriately, sanctions can be a powerful tool for forcing states to change their behavior without resorting to military intervention, with the Iranian case being a notable example. Previous rounds of sanctions, peaking in 2012 with an oil embargo and disconnection from the global banking system SWIFT, dramatically shifted the dynamics within Iran’s leadership.These measures forced Tehran into serious negotiations (JCPOA) after nine years of deception, cheating, and agreement violations.

The current geopolitical climate, marked by the demise of the second most important figure in Iran and Khamenei’s future successor, creates a moment of vulnerability and a rare opportunity to take advantage of the internal Iranian chaos. To capitalize on this opportunity, the US and its allies must implement a broad strategy that intensifies economic pressure and clearly demonstrates to Tehran the benefits of compliance. First, reinforcing existing sanctions through international cooperation, in an effort to prevent any loopholes that might undermine their effectiveness. Second, imposing new sanctions, focusing on critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as oil exports and banking, which are vital to its financial stability. By tightening the noose around these key areas, the pressure on the Iranian regime will intensify, forcing them to consider negotiations as a viable option. Third, instead of viewing sanctions solely as a tool for isolation, decision makers should recognize that they are a means, not an end. A multifaceted approach is needed, combining economic pressure with a clear diplomatic channel that outlines the path to an agreement. This entails presenting Iran with a cohesive and attainable framework, including verifiable steps towards limiting its nuclear program.

 Moreover, especially in these dramatic days, the Iranian public, exhausted from economic deprivation and international isolation, may push for significant changes in the country after the brutal oppression under Raisi. Mass protests could undermine the regime’s survival and force the Ayatollahs regime to change direction. By presenting a clear alternative to continued heavy sanctions – compliance with international nuclear standards in exchange for economic benefits, the US and its allies can leverage domestic pressures within Iran to drive the regime towards serious negotiations.

Critics argue that sanctions often harm ordinary citizens more than the political elite. Indeed, millions of innocent people in countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Venezuela suffer from economic collapse and even famine due to sanctions. I believe that this genuine concern must be addressed by ensuring that sanctions are precise, targeting the regime’s financial assets rather than the broader economy. In addition, unilateral sanctions tend to be less effective than those implemented through broad international coalitions. Thus, the US must collaborate closely with European allies and regional partners to ensure a unified stance. While Russia and China are unlikely to impose sanctions on Iran due to their economic and security ties, multilateral sanctions are essential to increase economic pressure, strengthen diplomatic legitimacy, and make it harder for Iran to find alternative sources of support.

The death of Iran’s president presents an unprecedented opportunity to revive efforts towards a nuclear agreement from a position of strength. By leveraging the economic impact of sanctions during this period of political transition, the international community can push Tehran into a corner, making negotiations not just a desirable option but a necessary one. While a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities not currently on the table, given the ongoing war in Gaza and the upcoming election in the US, exploiting the situation in Iran seems to be the preferred course of action. This strategy requires a delicate balance of pressure and diplomacy, ensuring that the ultimate goal – preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is achieved without risking a wide conflict.

About the Author
The writer has nearly a decade of experience as a Middle East analyst in Israel. Currently in his fourth and final year of pursuing a degree in law (LLB) and government (BA) at Reichman University, he is a fellow of the Argov Fellowship in Leadership and Diplomacy.
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