World, Analysis, Middle East

US sanctions on Iran increasing public unease

A significant portion of the Iranian people do not ‘claim’ the threat of war: they view it as a threat against the regime, and not Iran

Selim Celal   | 03.07.2019
US sanctions on Iran increasing public unease


The U.S.-Iran relationship has been at its worst for the last couple of weeks. Their relationship started deteriorating last year when President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the ‘Iran nuclear deal’. The relationship hit a new low when the U.S. dramatically increased its military presence in the Middle East and the Strait of Hormuz, and reached its peak on June 20, 2019 when a U.S. drone was shot down by the Guardians of Islamic Revolution (GIR).

The Iranian authorities claimed that the drone had violated Iran’s sovereignty. Most analysts were expecting retaliation from the U.S. President Trump who said that the U.S. military was “cocked and loaded” but called off the strike at the last moment, feeling uncomfortable with the scale of the possible collateral damage that could ensue.

Interestingly, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seems to be more hawkish, while President Trump has been demonstrating a reconciliatory approach towards Iran. On every platform he has been offering negotiation to Iran without any preconditions. In the meantime, a number of countries have attempted to provide good offices in order to ease the tension in the region. President Trump has also been supportive of such initiatives. In this regard, the extraordinary visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Iran on June 12 was of particular importance.

Doubtless, Shinzo Abe was an ideal figure for brokering a peace deal between Iran and the U.S. His country has a history and experience of fighting fiercely against the U.S. but also has since possessed a strong strategic and economic partnership with it. Therefore, he could showcase both the plight of fighting a superpower, and the benefits of friendship with it. Nonetheless, Abe returned with empty hands.

Though the U.S. has not retaliated in the wake of the attack on its drone yet, it has reportedly conducted a cyberattack on Iranian missile system, paralyzing it for a few days. There is also a rumor in the media being widely discussed that by attacking the U.S. drone, the Islamic Republic walked into a U.S. trap. The drone forced Iran to activate its missile system, which is a local technology and had hitherto been out of reach of the U.S. When the missile was fired, the entire system was exposed and became vulnerable to hacking by another U.S. drone shadowing the one that was shot down.

Amid debates on whether the U.S would completely overlook the attack on its drone or not, the U.S. sanctions on Iran are mounting. On June 24, 2019, President Trump announced imposing hard-hitting sanctions on the Iranian Supreme Leader and his entire headquarters. It suggests that although the U.S. is not sure about military action against Iran, it is determined to increase pressure on Iran through various economic and political sanctions.

That said, the questions remain: What does the Iranian public, overall, think about the sanctions and how are they reacting despite the ostensible monolithic bloc that the administration seems to have achieved against the U.S.? Have the sanctions united a greater number of people around a common goal or against a common enemy? And if the sanctions continue at the current pace, what would be the short to medium-term results?

The above questions should be addressed in the light of Iranian establishment’s uncompromising approach and belligerent behavior. For the time being, the Iranian leaders’ official position is: “neither war nor negotiation”. While negotiation generally takes place with mutual consent, it is not the case with war. War does not require mutual consent. It is a question of conviction. It takes one side to be convinced to wage a war. Furthermore, rejecting negotiation means getting closer to a full-blown war. It seems the Iranian leaders are not afraid of war, rather inviting it through their provocative activities in the region.

As a matter of fact, the Iranian people and the Iranian regime are obsessed with, but at the same time, afraid of sanctions more than war due to specific reasons. As far as the Iranian people are concerned, they can only imagine the devastation from a war; but they are subjected to the plight of sanctions right now in their daily lives. The sanctions have been taking a heavy toll on them. Industries are being shot down one after another and unemployment is on the rise. According to a survey conducted by Javadi Yeganih, a sociologist and Tehran’s deputy mayor for Cultural Affairs, 29.8 percent of Iranians are thinking of leaving the country. The survey was done with 82,000 participants picked from 426 cities, which allows us to draw generalizable conclusions. Given that the survey was conducted in 2016, the situation is probably more drastic now. Additionally, a significant portion of the Iranian people do not “claim” the threat of war. They view it as a threat against the regime, and not Iran.

On the other hand, the regime is afraid of sanctions for different reason. It knows very well that economic hardship works for short term, but would exhaust common Iranians, including its minority sympathizers, in the long run. An Iranian proverb says: “an empty stomach does not have faith”. Similarly, with continuing sanctions, the establishment has to face an angry population in addition to the American threat. Therefore, the ruling elites are convinced that if a war is ever going to take place, it had better break out now. As put by Jamshid Barzegar, an Iranian analyst, the Islamic Republic has arrived at this conclusion: that the removal of sanctions is not possible under the current U.S. administration. So, it just seems to be seeking an opportune time for the pending war.

In addition to the alienation of the people, the sanctions will significantly affect the Islamic Republic’s war strategy in the longer run. In case of a preemptive U.S. attack, the most important strategy of Iran would be to resort to a proxy war. Under this strategy, the Quds Force (overseen by the GIR) is supposed to play a key role in such a case. Consisting of fifteen to thirty thousand of the finest of the IRGC troops, the Quds Force provides Tehran with an unconventional warfare capability. But it typically operates alongside non-state actors, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hashdi Shabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, etc. Without these proxies, it cannot function effectively. That is why the Islamic Republic has been funneling millions of dollars to these groups. But, at the moment it is facing a shortage of cash and is thus having a difficulty funding them. Receiving no money, they may fade away or change their loyalties.

The U.S. sanctions are widening the rift within the Iranian establishment as well. A hidden blame game is going on among the ruling elites. One should not be impressed by their show of unity on the surface. As the Iranian saying goes, they are just “reddening their cheeks with slaps”. As time goes on, the discrepancies among them will surely become more visible.

With suffocating sanctions, the Islamic Republic is counting on two external factors to find some breathing space: First, a Democratic victory in the November 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections. Second, the European Union’s efforts to bypass the sanctions and save the nuclear deal. The EU seems determined to pull that off. But if we liken the deal to a patient in a coma, the EU can at best provide oxygen to keep the patient alive. It cannot help him back on its feet without the help of the main surgeon, namely, the U.S. As part of its efforts, on June 30, 2019, the EU announced that it had established a financial mechanism officially known as the “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges” (INSTEX). The main function of the mechanism is to enable Iran to make transactions. But there must be something to transact in the first place. With Iran’s production of oil falling under 300 thousand barrels per day, the mechanism would be of no use. As put by Takht Ravanchi, the head of Iran’s permanent delegation at the UN, “the INSTEX is a sleek car but with no fuel”.

In a nutshell, one can argue that to survive the sanctions, the Islamic Republic is desperately counting on democrats to defeat Trump and the EU to help it to bypass the sanctions. Also, to survive a possible U.S. attack, it is mainly counting on its proxies to stage a war of attrition against the U.S. In both scenarios, the people of Iran are not in the picture, and the Supreme Leader very well knows that the sanctions are increasing the number of those who are willing to take to the streets to demonstrate against the regime.

[Selim Celal is an expert on Iran's foreign policy and domestic politics]

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