President Donald Trump has said that the aim of the sanctions on Iran is to persuade the Khomeinist clique in Tehran to change aspects of its behavior abroad. In that sense, sanctions are working. (Photo by Kim Min-Hee - Pool/Getty Images)
As President Donald Trump tightens the screws on the current ruling elite in Tehran, the debate on the possible consequences of his policy rages on in American media, think tanks and political circles. Moreover, because Trump's constituency is outside such elite spheres the impression created is that his Iran policy either has failed already or is set to produce undesirable unintended consequences.
In that context, seven claims form the main themes of the campaign launched by the pro-Tehran lobby with support from sections of the US Democrat Party and others who dislike Trump for different reasons. The first claim is that sanctions do not work.
That theme is developed without spelling out what the intended aims of sanctions are. Trump has said his aim is to persuade the Khomeinist clique in Tehran to change aspects of its behavior abroad. In that sense, sanctions are working.
The mullahs have started to reduce their footprint in Syria and Yemen, without quite opting for total withdrawal. Offices in more than 30 Iranian cities, to enlist "volunteers" for "Jihad" in Syria, have been closed, and the recruitment of Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries has stopped. Tehran's military and diplomatic presence in Yemen has been downsized, ostensibly for security reasons. Smuggling arms to Houthis continues albeit at a reduced rate.
Cash-flow problems caused by sanctions have also forced the mullahs to cut the stipends of proxies, notably the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian "Islamic Jihad," by around 10 percent with more cuts envisaged. Tehran has also been forced to swallow the disbanding of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabai (Popular Mobilization) which is given 30 days to disarm and become a political party or merge into Iraqi Army under the Prime Minister's command.
More importantly, perhaps, the mullahs have frozen their missile program at the current range of 2000 kilometers. Cash-flow problems have also led to cuts in a number of political and business outfits controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As the regime digs deeper into its war chest, accumulated over years, it is bound to cut expenditures on more of its adventures at home and abroad.
The second claim is that sanctions do work but harm ordinary Iranians. The usual rant about babies left with no milk and old ladies unable to replace pacemakers is underlined in numerous op-eds and think tank papers produced by the mullahs' lobby and their American supporters.
However, the Islamic Ministry of Health has rejected that claim with repeated assurances that since food, medical supplies, and other humanitarian items are under no sanctions, there are no shortages of the kind claimed.
The third claim is that the mullahs may opt for retaliatory measures against the US and allies. This they have already done by attacking oil tankers close to Fujairah and the Jask Peninsula in the Gulf of Oman and by shooting down an American drone. However, all that came in homeopathic doses with care taken not to cause human casualties or serious threat to the flow of oil.
Do not forget this is the regime that sent suicide bombers to kill 241 US Marines and 52 French paratroopers in their sleep in Beirut and, in the tanker war of 1987, wreaked havoc in international oil traffic. The mullahs' decision to increase their stockpile of low-enriched uranium, of no use for anything, above 300 kilograms, and to re-start producing plutonium, again of absolutely no use to anyone, is too farcical to merit further attention.
The fourth claim is that Trump's sanctions may turn the mullahs' regime into a cornered cat that, finding no way out, may spring in one's face. One or two US-based lobbyists have also compared the situation in Iran today with that in Germany after World War I when punitive measures imposed by allies helped destroy the Weimar Republic and bring Hitler to power. However, the Khomeinist regime is no democracy as the Weimar Republic was, and Ur-Fascist elements are already in control in Tehran.
The fifth claim is that Trump's sanctions are putting a strain on the trans-Atlantic alliance and that European powers may help the Khomeinist regime survive for decades as did the Castro outfit in Cuba.
However, there is a big difference between the two cases. In the case of Cuba, the US boycotted the island but did not impose sanctions on others trading with it. The Castro clique survived thanks to the support by the Soviet Union, Canada, Europe, and some Latin American nations. In contrast, Trump's sanctions are based on a brutal choice: If you trade with Iran, you cannot trade with the US!
Theoretically, any government can breach those sanctions by accepting to compensate businesses for damages caused by US "punishment" for trading with Iran. However, no European nation has agreed to do so, accepting a sharp fall in their trade with Iran, in the case of Germany around 45 percent.
The sixth claim is that sanctions may force Iran to quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and go blazing ahead to build the bomb. That claim, too, is fallacious. According to Islamic Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif, Tehran needs to sell 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to cover current expenses including payment of military and civil service salaries. Last month Iran's oil exports fell to 500,000 barrels a day, the lowest since 1955. Provided sanctions are not loosened, building the bomb is a luxury Iran cannot afford.
The seventh claim is that Trump's sanctions strengthen hardline factions and weaken the "reformists" around President Hassan Rouhani. Since Rouhani and his associates have never said or even hinted, what it is they may want to reform, it is hard to speak of a "reformist" faction. Moreover, the extensive purge of the military currently undertaken by "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei does not seem to have affected any "moderates".
Those affected so far are the more crazy elements like the Baseej (Mobilization of the Dispossessed) chief General Ghulam Hussein Gahyb-Parvar who promoted a plan to turn the White House in Washington into a Hussayniehs (Shi'ite gathering place).
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.