by Jamal Abdi and Sina Toossi
In August 2013, a group of 466 Iranian dissidents, including dozens of political prisoners, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama chastising him for his Iran policy. The unprecedented sanctions Obama had mustered against Iran, they argued, were not only debilitating the Iranian economy but suffocating Iranian civil society and prospects for peaceful democratic change within the country.
“The Iranian people see themselves as victims to tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments,” the letter proclaimed. “[They] have reached the conclusion that the sanctioning countries don’t care about their human rights and, to compel the Islamic Republic to accept their demands, they target the Iranian people.”
This week, Donald Trump reinstated the first set of those sanctions, which were removed as part of the July 2015 nuclear accord. According to the Congressional Research Service, these sanctions were the “most sweeping sanctions on Iran of virtually any country in the world,” cutting Iran out of most international trade and banking, and slashing its oil exports—the lifeblood of the Iranian economy.
The Obama sanctions plunged the Iranian economy into recession and doubled the rate of Iranian families in poverty. In January 2013, the Guardian wrote that “hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by … sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs.”
The human costs of the sanctions were not only overlooked by many in Washington, but outright defended in some quarters. Congressman Brad Sherman declared at the time: “Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”
Trump may have a similar mindset in re-imposing the sanctions, despite complete Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal that triggered their removal. Despite his expressed desire for talks with Iran, the rhetoric and actions coming from the president and his administration do not reflect an endgame focused on diplomatic compromise.
Rather, they betray an objective to weaken and destabilize Iran. To this end, Trump has embraced the aggressively anti-Iran positions of Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati leaders, who for years have pushed U.S. presidents to bomb Iran. For them, a failed state in Iran is a sufficient objective.
Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been marked by all-out economic warfare, including a stated aim of forcing Iran out of the oil market. Trump and his hawkish officials National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also actively tried to sow the flames of unrest in Iran. At a time when economic hardship and political grievances have brought thousands of Iranians to the streets, Pompeo and Bolton have flattered fringe and extremist Iranian opposition groups. According to U.S. officials speaking with Reuters, the Trump administration has “launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran.” The administration has also reportedly teamed up with Israel to form a “joint working group” focused on “internal efforts to encourage protests within Iran.”
The reality is that Trump’s pressure campaign weakens those within Iran who seek more conciliatory foreign relations and a more open political and social domestic landscape. It also empowers Tehran’s most reactionary forces.
The repressive powers in the Islamic Republic are far more threatened by Iran’s integration into the global economy than by a tit-for-tat dispute with the United States. They worry that the lifting of sanctions will undermine the monopolies established by the well connected few who are aligned with the Revolutionary Guards and other government entities. Indeed, after the nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader issued edicts against a broader opening to the United States and hardliners repeatedly warned of “foreign infiltration” in order to obstruct President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West.
The real threats to repressive rule in Iran are a growing middle class, an organized civil society movement, and leaders who have the political capital to push for change against entrenched elements in the system. These trends make a democratic Iran inevitable. But outsiders, often led by the United States, have taken actions to arrest these developments. They have propped up Iran’s repressive rulers with threats of war and invasion, and bailed them out by slapping sanctions and travel bans to isolate Iranians and keep them weak.
Trump’s punishing use of sanctions will wither away Iranian civil society by impoverishing Iran’s middle class. The sanctions will serve to increase control of the Iranian economy by unaccountable and repressive forces. If U.S. policymakers wish to increase room for political dissent and civil society in Iran, they should remove obstacles to improving the standard of living and wellbeing of the Iranian people. Surrounded by advisors who have for years argued for orchestrating a civil war in Iran, Donald Trump unfortunately appears headed in a perilous direction.
Jamal Abdi is president of the National Iranian American Council. Sina Toossi is a research associate at the National Iranian American Council.