by Ethan Azad
Many Iranians have come to think of the United States as a beacon of liberty. Conversely, when “Iran” is mentioned, many in the United States think of crowds in the streets of Tehran chanting “Death to America!” The strained history between Iran and the United States is a century-long drama that includes a C.I.A. coup, the collapse of a 2000-year-old monarchy, hostage-taking in an American embassy on foreign soil, a civilian airliner being shot down and an array of other egregious acts that in most cases would result in the onset of a major war. Over the last four decades, these events have contributed to inaccurate perceptions of Iranians and have increased the risk of global conflict.
The United States’ recent unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reimposes sanctions that had been lifted in 2015 under the Obama administration. They are punitive measures meant to primarily address Iran’s nuclear program. However, what is far too often overlooked is that Iran is not a united country in which all parties agree on important issues. Iranian civilians have no means to effectively influence and challenge domestic politics, let alone nuclear policy, yet civilians are the ones who most directly feel the impacts of these sanctions.
Iran is a nation of over 80 million people and consists of a government with conflicting political factions. Conservatives and pragmatists have opposing interests and only a select few of them are behind the anti-western actions tied to the country. Not all Iranians view the United States as the source of their woes or participate in the regime’s anti-American parades. In fact, most do not. Many Iranians simply desire a functional democracy, appreciate U.S. culture and consider their own leaders responsible for the isolation and economic turmoil of the past decades.
Nonetheless, the United States and its allies have concerns which are not entirely unwarranted. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an organization within Iran’s military branch and is arguably the most influential entity within the regime. The IRGC has been criticized for its military support of terrorist organizations in neighboring countries. They have an interest in advancing the country’s nuclear program and benefit from keeping Iran’s economy isolated. The IRGC has essentially embedded itself in all aspects of Iranian life in the name of the Islamic republic.
Despite any fear inspired by the IRGC, people have condemned the regime’s actions in recent protests and demanded that the nation’s leaders place greater attention on domestic issues. These protests are ongoing and at risk to escalate as the second wave of sanctions are scheduled for reinforcement on November 5th. A more likely possibility is that sanctions will continue to lower the average Iranian’s quality of life and exacerbate the strains experienced as a result of the country’s turmoil.
The first wave of these sanctions was activated in August 2018, though this is not the first time Iran has faced and endured sanctions. The United States and members of the international community have resorted to sanctions of various breadth and scope as a way to reign in Iran’s behavior since the Hostage Crisis of 1979. As evident today, they have proven to be ineffective in changing the regime’s trajectory.
One problem is that repercussions of these sanctions will be, as they have been in the past, felt most by Iranian consumers who have no say or responsibility in the regime’s actions. The unrest that began in early 2018 is due to unpaid wages and the sharp decrease in the rial’s value, issues that primarily affect the general population. The prices of consumer goods have risen almost 400%. On an even deeper level, Iranians have long-standing grievances with the regime’s oppressive governance, and they have been voicing them for years at the risk of imprisonment or worse.
Iran is an Islamic Republic governed by Islamic laws and was born from a revolution. Internal domestic politics have never been democratically established. As the country has experienced the effects of increased information technology, opposition has intensified. Women are speaking out against wearing hijabs and even business owners traditionally aligned with the regime are participating in the latest protests. Sanctions on Iran are meant to exert pressure on the regime, but instead they weaken and isolate the regime’s main opposition — the Iranian people.
The regime, well aware of the looming threat of mass uprisings, will take steps to solidify their position. As the threat from Iranian protesters and their supporters expands, Iran’s hardliners and reformers will be motivated to work together to try and maintain control over the situation. Indeed, U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA will strengthen the regime by giving it the scapegoat it needs. Withdrawal gives credence to hardliners who have vocally claimed the United States to be untrustworthy and hostile to Iran. Additionally, after the failed Green Movement in 2009, the regime is more prepared than ever to violently and swiftly shut down any threatening dissidence, so another revolution is unlikely.
The U.S. position is that the Iranian regime needs to face consequences for its operations in the Middle East and pursuit of nuclear capabilities. However, the Trump administration’s decision to pull economic levers to reign in the regime are unwise because sanctions will mainly cause a greater divide between the United States and Iran. Lead regime forces will move to unite and the civilian population may find motivation to sympathize and side with the regime. The complexity of the relationship between these two nations requires an approach more sophisticated than economic sanctions. U.S. policymakers and their advocates carry a heavy burden in deciding how best to structure Iran-related policy since the wrong approach could lead to decades of even greater hostility. For policy on Iran to have a positive and lasting outcome, the interests of Iranian civilians need to be prioritized in ways that bring them out of international isolation rather than keep them in it.