Tehran’s defiant attitude is part of a desperate strategy to compel the international community to stand down.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has maintained a defiant tone in the face of the “maximum pressure” campaign pursued by Donald Trump’s White House. The campaign reached new heights last week when it was announced that the US would no longer be granting waivers to eight leading purchasers of Iranian oil after the current ones expire on May 2. The announcement came just two weeks after it was revealed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) would be sanctioned and designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US government.
The Iranian regime’s anti-Western rhetoric also reached unprecedented levels in the immediate aftermath of these dual announcements. Theocratic and military authorities have sought to portray themselves as unaffected by the pressure, but experts on Iranian affairs understand that their defiance is mere bluster. The IRGC controls the vast majority of Iran’s gross domestic product, and oil exports remain central to the nation’s economy. By blacklisting the hardline paramilitary and cutting off most of the world’s markets from Iranian exports, the US is sure to precipitate an even greater crisis than the one the Islamic Republic has already been facing.
The seriousness of the pre-existing crisis was already well established at the beginning of last year, at which time residents of every major Iranian city and town were participating in nationwide protests that reflected the people’s frustration with rampant economic mismanagement and nearly 40 years of violent repression by a non-representative government. Although the initial unrest was suppressed within weeks, largely by the action of the IRGC, it was the start of a much larger movement that continues to inspire public demonstrations to this day.
In fact, the entire year 2018 was deemed a “year full of uprisings” by Maryam Rajavi, the leader of Iran’s democratic opposition. In a testament to the social strength and high-level organization of the opposition movement, the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (MEK) was widely credited with facilitating the rapid spread of the nationwide protests, and with helping to popularize its most provocative slogans like “Death to the Dictator.” Such slogans left little doubt about the ultimate goal of the movement — namely regime change at the hands of the Iranian people.
The United States and its allies can help the Iranian people to realize that goal, and indeed they have already begun to do so. Coming as it did in the wake of the American withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the nationwide unrest served to demonstrate that the civilian population has had enough of the economic hardship the clerical regime failed to alleviate following the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. In other words, it undermined familiar criticisms of assertive Western policy, which tend to suggest that such pressure could drive the Iranian people to rally behind their hardline government while blaming the Western world for their misfortunes.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials have eagerly sought to encourage that very response, but to no avail. Their failure is made all the more remarkable by the fact that much of the regime’s anti-Western propaganda doubles as a veiled threat against those members of the domestic population who would dare to openly voice their dissent, or to promote supposedly “Western” values of democratic governance and secular morality.
Roughly two weeks after the Trump administration announced the terrorist designation for the IRGC, Ayatollah Khamenei announced a sudden change of leadership for the organization. Cutting short the previous IRGC head’s appointed term of office, the supreme leader installed Hossein Salami, the organization’s former deputy head, as his replacement. The Iran-Iraq War veteran’s appointment has been described as a shift to the very hardest of an already hardline leadership. The appointment followed close on the heels of Salami publicly declaring that the IRGC was “proud” of its new terrorist designation. Khamenei himself echoed that sentiment in remarks to other military leaders, declaring that any action that makes Western “enemies” angry is “appropriate and correct” for the Islamic Republic. Such statements are no doubt designed to portray the Iranian regime as impervious to foreign pressure, but no sensible person can take them seriously.
There is hope among the Iranian opposition that the regime will continue to suffer under Western sanctions. This message was partially conveyed by the 2018 protests, and the subsequent expressions of support by groups like the MEK for the continued escalation of that pressure. Iranians overwhelmingly recognize that their hardships stem from Tehran’s self-serving rule and not from Washington’s appropriately principled foreign policy. As such, the most salient feature of Salami’s appointment to the head of the IRGC is the implicit threat of even greater hardline repression.
Fortunately, that threat is somewhat sanitized by the terrorist designation, which will quickly diminish the resources of the Revolutionary Guards. Their repressive power was already stretched to breaking point amidst the protests, and there is no telling how much more quickly that point will be reached when a new domestic activist movement springs up in Iran, against the backdrop of “maximum pressure.”
With that in mind, the Trump administration must remain committed to seeing that strategy through. At the same time, all policymakers and partners of the United States who are torn between this newfound assertiveness and the status quo of Iranian relations should pick a side. Tehran’s defiant attitude suggests that assertiveness raises the potential for war. But in reality, it is only part of a desperate strategy to compel the international community to stand down.
As long as the adversaries of the Iranian dictatorship are willing to call the regime’s bluff, continued international pressure will lead not to open conflict, but to the internal change of Iran’s government. A nation so transformed will no longer be a threat to world peace, nor to its own long-suffering people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.