(Un)Intended consequences? Iran’s crackdown on protestors and the role of U.S. sanctions

Last November, mass demonstrations erupted in Iran in more than 100 cities and towns following a sharp hike in fuel prices. According to Iranian officials, more than 700 banks were torched, 70 petrol stations were burned down, and 140 government sites were vandalised during the riots. What ensued marked one of the most violent crackdowns since the 1979 Revolution. According to Amnesty International, at least 208 people were killed by security forces in less than a week of unrest. Kalame, an opposition website close to Iran’s Green Movement, has put the number of fatalities at 366. 

The Iranian authorities were quick to brand those involved in the riots as ‘thugs’ and ‘mercenaries’ accused of working for Iran’s enemies, i.e. foreign actors. In all likelihood though, the majority of demonstrators were disgruntled citizens driven to despair by dire economic conditions, glaring income inequalities, and endemic corruption. Most demonstrations were held in provincial towns and working-class areas, inhabited by lower-income, blue-collar and more pious workers, a demographic long since considered to comprise the system’s main supporters. 

The  claim that foreign actors triggered the recent unrest is, however, true to some extent. Iran’s economy has long suffered from mismanagement, cronyism, nepotism, and corruption. But it is undeniable that the re-imposition of sanctions following the United States’ (U.S.) unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal has severely compounded Tehran’s fiscal predicament.

Indeed, one of the main assumptions behind imposing sanctions is that economic pressure would cause the population to rise up and demand change, or even overthrow the regime. President Trump and his administration insist that the White House is not pursuing regime change in Iran. However, it is not a secret that many hawks within the U.S. administration believe that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse and squeezing it harder will simply hasten the process. The officially stated aim of Trump’s maximum pressure policy is to force Iran into negotiating a new deal to accept tougher restrictions on its nuclear activity and missile programme, and to end its support of militant groups in the Middle East. It is furthermore claimed that sanctions are aimed at forcing Iran to change the domestic policies that violate the human rights of its own citizens.

Yet, it is hard to imagine that the discontent of the Iranian populace with its ruling elite could – at least in the foreseeable future – bring about significant regime change. Iranians have long been disillusioned with their leaders and have been striving for more civil liberties, social and political freedoms, and improvement to their economic situation.  The country routinely witnesses all forms of demonstrations, ranging from labour strikes, to marches over localised grievances, to sit-ins by students and political activists over issues such as freedom of speech. But there is no evidence to suggest that there is a broad enough social base in Iran that wants to see another revolution. Many Iranians fear the chaos that would come with such a radical change. As Vaez puts it, ‘the 1979 revolution’s memory and the Arab uprisings’ experience have been instructive for the large, and increasingly mature Iranian middle class’. Most Iranians are sympathetic to the grievances that triggered the recent wave of unrest. Yet the scale of violence used on both sides, particularly by the Iranian state, has likely exacerbated the fear among many people over an all-out confrontation between Iranian citizens and the state. This is because the Revolutionary Guard has a significant capacity to repress demonstrations. Particularly if the regime perceives an existential threat to its survival, it will not hesitate to use lethal force to crush opposition. Trump’s full-fledged economic and information warfare against Iran has exacerbated the paranoia and distrust of the Iranian ruling regime. Therefore, any form of dissent is more likely to be seen as a covert operation to overthrow the system and thus harshly repressed. 

It is unlikely that Trump’s sanctions will bring about a more restrictive nuclear agreement than that reached after more than a decade of diplomacy and coercion applied by previous U.S. administrations. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had put in place sturdy verification and monitoring mechanisms to ensure Iran’s nuclear programme would remain peaceful throughout the next decade. As confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran was fully implementing its nuclear commitments at the time that the U.S. torpedoed the deal. Anyone familiar with the long history of nuclear negotiations knows that the Iranian elites, be they moderate or hardline, will not agree to indefinitely halt the country’s nuclear fuel cycle activities. This might be due to Iran’s desire for at least a latent nuclear weapons capability as an ultimate deterrent. An alternative explanation could be found in Iran’s cultural and historical background, which has turned the mastery of the fuel cycle into a matter of prestige, independence and justice. The history of 12 years of nuclear negotiations shows that even under the most crippling oil embargo, Iran did not stop pursuing its right to enrichment. There is no indication that this will be different this time around.  

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that in the short- to medium-term, the Iranian leadership will change its policies that are perceived as part of the country’s defence doctrine. Iran’s conventional military forces could not counter the far superior militaries of its adversaries such as the U.S. Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran has received only very limited transfers of modern military weapons. Domestically, the country cannot produce the most advanced weapons, including combat aircrafts. But as Cordesman suggest, ‘it has done well in producing missiles, munitions, and smaller weapons systems’. Lacking the ability to modernise its air force, Iran has become highly dependent on its missile capabilities. Furthermore, Iran puts major emphasis on harnessing ties to non-state actors, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, that could act as a retaliatory force in the event of an attack on Iran. Given the deep wounds left in the Iranian national psyche by the bitter experiences of the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War, external pressure is unlikely to move the country’s ruling elite to give up what they see as essential elements of their defence strategy. 

As Britain’s former ambassador to Washington suggested, Trump quit the nuclear pact for ‘ideological and personal reasons’. Because of ‘his background in wrangling real estate deals’, Trump seems to think that he could extract a better bargain than the JCPOA if he squeezed Iran hard enough. Yet his maximum pressure has not forced Tehran to yield, rather it has led it to adopt a policy of maximum resistance. In the most optimistic scenario, the U.S. administration could reach a new deal with Iran, similar to the JCPOA in substance, but marketed as a ‘Trump accomplishment’. 

Given that sanctions produce tremendous human suffering, there is no moral justification in imposing them if their effectiveness is marginal. While policy-makers in Washington might be tempted to see unrest in Iran as evidence that their maximum pressure policy is working, the recent demonstrations are only proof of impact but not effect.

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