General Hussein Salami, commander of the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is sanguine about his claim that, far from hurting, the Islamic Republic is on course to become a global power. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
While Tehran leaders have turned relations with the United States into the central issue of Iranian politics, they still seem unable to decide whether the present tension between the two sides hurts or helps their regime.
One group within the establishment claims that the sanctions re-imposed by President Donald Trump actually helps the regime and hurts the US. In his recent talks to various US think tanks and media, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has defended that thesis with his usual panache. According to him, Trump has "isolated" the US while the Islamic Republic has earned "worldwide sympathy and support."
General Hussein Salami, commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is equally sanguine about his claim that, far from hurting, the Islamic Republic is on course to become a global power.
"We have already reached the Mediterranean and prepare to go even further," he said in a recent speech. "We are now in a position to occupy and set on fire all military bases of the United States in the region and beyond."
The general believes that even when it comes to military hardware, the Islamic Republic won't be hurt by the re-imposition of a UN embargo.
The official media are equally divided. The segment controlled by the IRGC peddles the claim that sanctions have helped Iran to develop a self-sufficiently economy capable of producing all that is needed. It goes even further by hailing "the end of reliance on oil exports" as the realization of a dream that generations of Iranians had since the 1950s. In a recent speech Eshaq Jahangiri, 1st Assistant to President Rouhani, claimed that income from oil had now fallen to $7 billion a year.
Doing without selling oil was a dream that supporters of Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadeq also trumpeted when, facing a British embargo, managed to survive without exporting oil for two years: 1951-52. Most other nations in the world also manage to survive without exporting oil.
The position of "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, the man supposed to have the final word in Tehran, isn't always clear. At times he claims that the aim of the revolution is the destruction of America at almost any cost. And, yet, he has been involved in negotiations, secret or above-board, with the "Great Satan" for almost four decades. He also approved the so-called "nuke deal" dictated by President Barack Obama, putting large segments of Iranian industry, trade and scientific research under foreign tutelage.
There is, however, another faction that puts the blame for almost all of Iran's current problems on Donald Trump. The most vocal spokesman for that faction is Hojat al-Islam wa al-Muslemeen Hassan Rouhani, who acts as President of the Islamic Republic.
Under his administration, the value of the Iranian currency, rial, has fallen from 3,000 to 30,000 in just six years. Inflation has spiraled to almost 50 percent, while the economy is shrinking by an average of three percent a year. According to official statistics, over 30 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line, with more than a quarter of the work force unemployed.
In his recent speech, Rouhani all but claimed that the sanctions re-imposed by Trump have been even more effective than Washington says.
"The Americans say they have damaged our economy by tens of billions of dollars," Rouhani said. "The damage is higher. In the past three years they have done more than $150 billion in damage to our economy."
Describing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as "the Minster of Crimes", Rouhani said Pompeo's claim of preventing Iran from accessing $70 billion of its own money in foreign banks was an underestimation. The Hojat al-Islam even blamed the failure of his government to cope with the Covid-19 crisis on Pompeo who "prevented us from securing a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund."
The Hojat al-Islam claims that without "Trump's sanctions" our people would have had a much more comfortable life.
What causes this apparent division in the analysis of the regime's central foreign policy problem? One reason may be the fact that two different audiences must be addressed.
One audience consists of the Democrat Party in the US, with which part of the Islamic regime hopes to make a deal based on the one offered by Obama. The message to please that audience is that Trump's Iran policy has failed, just like all his other policies and that the US has suffered more than Iran has.
The other audience is the people in Iran, who feel they are poorer than they were six years ago and blame the leadership for its ineptitude, corruption and failure to develop a better foreign policy and stop using resources on foreign adventures. However, there may be a subtext in that: preparing public opinion for yet another climb-down in the fight against the "Great Satan". After all, if people are convinced that making a deal with Washington is the key to all problems they would welcome what Khamenei calls "a heroic flexibility."
The question now is whether their climb-down will come with Trump still in the White House of will the mullahs wait for Joe Biden, the "little devil" they know better.
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.