Nobody seems to be sure what US President Donald Trump is planning for Iran. After pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran in May of this year, some sanctions have been reapplied to Iran, whose economy was already struggling. On November 5th, oil sanctions are to be snapped back, which will devastate the Iranian economy even further. Some claim that President Trump is hoping the Iranians react with violence, so that the US and its coalition of MidEast allies can justify military action. Others claim that there is no solid strategy in place, other than to look tougher than Obama and crush Iran’s economy. Indeed, Trump may be trying to, as he claims, get the Iranians back to negotiate a better deal. His actions don’t seem that organized, yet if one looks closely at the “sanctions snapback”, his true plan becomes evident: debilitate Iran so badly that it turns into another Afghanistan.
Iran as a state is often equated with the ancient Persian Empire. Yet today, ethnic Persians make up only a slight majority of the Iranian population. Minority groups, such as Azeris, Kurds, Balochis, and ethnic Arabs in the Khuzestan province, make up sizeable minorities, and have long expressed their discontent with the regime. Just recently, Arab rebels in Ahwaz, the capital of the majority-Arab Khuzestan region, killed 30 Iranians during a military parade. ISIS, a Sunni (and mainly Arab) terror group, has also committed terror acts in the Islamic Republic and declared Tehran to be its main enemy. Arabs in Iran have long complained of discrimination, neglect, and inequality, perhaps due in part to the longstanding civilizational rivalry between Persians and Arabs. They are not the only ones. Iran’s military and proxy terror groups, like its ally in the Syrian regime, have targeted Kurds inside Iran as well as in neighboring countries. Discrimination against Kurds has been longstanding in Iran, and has led to armed struggle against the theocratic government. The situation is very similar for the Balochi people in the southeast of the country. Given that Israel and Arab countries in the region have had some ties to these movements in order to foment discord in chaos inside Iran, it wouldn’t be surprising if President Trump sought to exploit and expand upon these internal attacks in order to distract the Iranian military. However, Trump’s goal in the more immediate term seems to be on increasing the protests within the country that first emerged this past winter.
President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton all seem to be betting that ordinary Iranian people, upset at the squandering of their wealth on foreign wars that have nothing to do with them, will rise up and topple the regime, or otherwise sow instability. Yet even if this fails to materialize, due to how organized the regime is internally, it will create enormous problems for the mullahs. Trump was strategic in hitting Iran, waiting for its most vulnerable moment. Despite the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) being implemented, Iran barely benefited from any trade. President Trump’s harsh rhetoric during the 2016 electoral campaign towards Iran made corporations even more worried about engaging in economic deals with the Islamic Republic. His victory and subsequent decertification of the nuclear deal caused even more economic uncertainty in the country, leading to an eventually plummeting of the value of the rial (Iran’s currency). It was at this troubled time for the country—which had experienced scores of protests already—that Trump chose to remove the US from the deal and reimpose sanctions. Despite the regime blaming America, many Iranians instead directed their anger towards their leaders: to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for oppressing the population; President Hassan Rohani, for failing to bring opportunity as he promised; and the foreign policy establishment, for wasting money on foreign wars that alienated Iran from much of the world. European efforts to cushion Iran from the effects of US sanctions have failed, exposing just how frail and weak the power of the European Union truly is.
Trump’s wielding of US economic might is meant to isolate Iran and devastate its economy. With China already engaged in a trade war against the US and seeing slower economic growth, there’s only so much it is willing to risk to help Tehran. Russia’s economy, also under Western sanctions, is also suffering, and it views Iran as a competitor in Syria’s reconstruction. Furthermore, Moscow seeks to benefit economically from replacing Iran’s oil on the market with its own. Despite severe disagreements with Trump on Iran and other issues, the world has little choice but to follow his lead. Meanwhile, Israel bombs Iranian targets—and bases belonging to their proxies—inside Syria, while the Saudi-led Arab coalition continues to strike at Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran is throwing billions of dollars into the garbage can as it constructs military facilities all across the Arab World that only get destroyed. The rampant corruption and economic mismanagement in the country certainly doesn’t help.
Inside the Islamic Republic, the quality of life is beginning to sharply deteriorate. As protests become more bold and anti-regime, ethnic minorities are also either demanding their rights or engaging in armed struggle. More young Iranians are turning to alcohol or drugs to escape their problems. To make ends meet, educated Iranians are starting to take up prostitution. So devastated is Tehran’s economy that Afghan refugees are fleeing back to their war-torn country for job opportunities. Severe drought—particularly in Ahwaz—fuels instability, as do air pollution and electricity shortages. If things continue like this for just a few more years, Iran will be in serious decline rather than being seen as an emerging regional power. With an economic recession projected for 2019 and severe environmental, economic and social problems, as well as continued strikes on its regional proxies, Iran’s regional project is likely to crumble. All of this will heighten protests in the country and possibly foment rebellion and civil war, which leaves its Israeli, Kurdish, and Arab neighbors better able to counter or destroy Tehran-bankrolled Shiite paramilitaries throughout the Middle East. This is not some coincidence or mere side effect of Trump’s policies: it is by design.
After he targeted the weakening Turkish economy, it became clear what the Trump Administration’s vision for the region is: for the Semites to dominate the Middle East; the Kurds to rise up and possibly join them; and the former rising powers of Iran and Turkey to enter a period of steep decline. This is a sad reality when thinking of what could have been for Iran. Iran’s people are relatively sophisticated, certainly compared to many neighboring countries, like Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Many of them are far more moderate than their rulers, and want engagement with the West and its allies. If the Islamic Revolution in 1979 never occurred, Iran could very well be a wealthy and influential power in the Near East today, chock-full with start-up companies and scientific advancement. However, due to the entrenchment of the regime—aided by the appeasement of European leaders, former Secretary of State John Kerry and former US President Barack Obama—this vision is unlikely to emerge anytime soon. In order to protect US interests and allies, Trump will stop at nothing to weaken the regime, no matter the consequences for the Iranian people. So begins the “Afghanistan-ization” of Iran.