The re-imposition of the first round of sanctions by the Trump administration proves much of what we already knew regarding Iran’s future policies and the confrontation over its nuclear project:
- It demonstrates that US administration is true to its word and fulfills its campaign commitments when it comes to acting in the interests of the US and global security.
- The impact on the Iranian economy, which already is in tatters, is going to be harsh and the efforts of Iran and Europe to mitigate it are doomed to fail. This is because the “blocking statute” that the EU has announced in response does not have the power to prevent any reasonable company from cutting its economic relations with Iran or incentivize it to enter a costly legal adventure against the US.
- The JCPOA was such a wonderful gift given by the Obama administration to Iran that even after the re-imposition of the sanctions, Iran prefers to stay in the deal than to leave it. Even without the US, the deal is still the best course for the Iranians to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons in less than thirteen years.
- Iran does not have a real confrontational option as long as the US is perceived ready and capable to use force in case Iran challenges it. The bravado of Iran regarding closing the Hormuz Straits and the show of force in the Bab-el-Mandeb are empty threats. The fact is that in his official response to the re-imposition of sanctions, President Rouhani made no mention of these earlier threats.
- The European Union is exposed once again as an appeaser of Iran and as a very weak force that can be totally ignored by the United States. Its only importance is in providing the Iranians with an excuse they can use to explain why Iran chooses to stay in the deal. In fact, the EU statement is based on blatant inaccuracies such as the claim that the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) has said that the Iranian nuclear project “remains exclusively peaceful.” The truth is that the only thing that the agency has said is that it does not identify a diversion of uranium to a parallel nuclear project in Iran in addition to the one it already monitors. The EU claims that Iran abides by their JCPOA commitments (of course they do, it is a wonderful deal for them from an Iranian point of view), however, amazingly, or not so amazingly, the Europeans totally ignore the archive of documents Israel exposed that proves the Iranian nuclear project was a military project aimed at producing five nuclear bombs to be mounted on missiles.
So What Will Happen Now?
The credibility gained by the US administration will further embolden the pressure on the Iranian economy and government. The unrest in Iran may gain more momentum, especially as the US makes it clear, unlike the Obama administration in 2009, that it supports the people in the streets in their protests and is probably helping them clandestinely. This may cause a power struggle inside the Iranian regime between the realistic hardliners led by President Rouhani (who are identified with the JCPOA) and the radical hardliners.
In the short to medium term, Iran will probably choose defiance, relying on the funds it already received as a result of the JCPOA, and will speak highly of unity in facing external threats. At this stage, no major changes are expected in Tehran’s regional policy and it will continue with its efforts to consolidate its bases throughout the region, especially in Syria.
However, as the second round of sanctions draws closer and following its implementation, the growing pressure may force the Iranian government to go through some soul-searching in an attempt to guarantee the survival of the regime – the only value more important to the regime than moving towards a nuclear arsenal and securing a hegemony in the Middle East.
This may cause a confrontation between the opposing forces in the regime and one outcome of it may eventuality be readiness to go back to negotiations, which at the moment is considered an unacceptable humiliation. Another eventuality can be a more belligerent attitude led by the radical hardliners towards the US and its allies, like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. Further along the line, the Iranians may consider making progress on their nuclear program, either within the framework of the JCPOA or by leaving it. In both cases, the American resolve and commitment to prevent Iran from doing so will be put to the test.
To sum up, the Iranian Islamic regime is in deep trouble, with no easy escape route. The feeble European attempts to come to Iran’s rescue will not be sufficient. Whether this would lead Iran again, as they did a couple of times in the past, to drink from the poisoned chalice (i.e. return to negotiations from a point of complete weakness), depends on the resolve of the United States to keep strengthening economic pressure. It also requires the US to convince Iran that the military option is credible and this depends, to some extent, on the outcome on the North Korean front.