President Trump and Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini. CreativeCommons, Shutterstock.
Amid the myriad cruelties of the Trump administration, its Iran policy rates perhaps a six or seven on a scale of ten. After all, Iranians who come to the United States have not been separated from their children who were sent to faraway places and kept in cages. Then again, not many Iranians are coming to the U.S. anymore.
But the same animus that motivates U.S. policy toward Latin American asylum-seekers runs through recent U.S. actions against Iran and will also be damaging to the U.S. economy.
Despite claims that the Trump administration “stands with the Iranian people”—repeated on July 2 by the State Department policy planning chief Brian Hook—the negative impact of U.S. policies falls most heavily on ordinary Iranians.
It is not just that the Trump administration is seeking to starve the Islamic Republic of its oil income—despite Iran’s full implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Iranians—from grandparents of American citizens to graduate students—are being barred entry to the U.S. on false grounds that they threaten U.S. national security. This is happening despite the fact that Iranians have made substantial contributions to our economy and society and no Iranian granted a visa to come to the U.S. has conducted an act of terrorism on U.S. soil.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to uphold the Trump administration’s third iteration of the travel ban against a half-dozen mostly Muslim-majority nations—of which Iran is the most populous—came on June 26. Barely an hour later, a State Department official, speaking on background, told journalists that the U.S. goal in quitting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is to reduce Iran’s oil exports to “zero” by Nov. 4. Hook repeated this on July 2.
This is a double whammy that some in Washington, Jerusalem, Riyadh, or Abu Dhabi might think could provoke a positive change in Iranian policies, if not the overthrow of Iran’s 40-year-old theocratic regime. But these steps are unlikely to alter Iran’s regional posture and will likely strengthen the most repressive forces at home.
Hook left a little wiggle room about the oil embargo, saying that the U.S., while not looking to grant waivers, is “prepared to work with countries that are reducing imports on a case-by-case basis.” China, India, and Turkey have all said that they will not stop importing Iranian oil just because Washington tells them to. Still, there is no doubt that Iranian exports will decline because of the threat of U.S. legal action against foreign companies that continue to trade with Iran. This will contribute to a deepening economic and political crisis there.
Uncertainty over the survival of the JCPOA after Trump’s election had already weakened Iran’s economy, deterred foreign companies from investing, and devalued the currency before Trump withdrew from the deal on May 8. Since then, the rial has plunged even further in relation to the dollar as a full-scale panic has taken hold. Protests and strikes by Iranian merchants reflect this panic and may also have been stoked by hardline political factions opposed to the government of President Hassan Rouhani.
While Rouhani appears to retain the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hardliners are plotting to return to power in parliamentary elections in 2020 and presidential polling in 2021. We have seen this movie before—when President George W. Bush put Iran on an “axis of evil,” boosting the fortunes of a then relatively obscure mayor named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Defeating a pragmatist, Ahmadinejad won election as president in 2005 and a fraud-tainted re-election in 2009. Iran accelerated its nuclear program, which had been largely suspended for two years while Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was in office. That program could now resume a dangerous trajectory at a time when the purported gains of the Trump administration’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea look increasingly dubious.
The Bush administration, which outsourced nuclear negotiations with Iran to Britain, France, and Germany in 2003, gave Iran its biggest geopolitical boost by overthrowing its nemesis, Saddam Hussein, that same year. Two years later, the U.S. insisted on holding elections in Iraq that empowered the country’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and militant parties long groomed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iranian regional influence has since expanded as IRGC-backed forces helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State, prop up Syria’s brutal regime, consolidate Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon and bolster Houthi rebels in Yemen against a Saudi-Emirati counterassault. Iran will almost certainly have more say in the formation of the next Iraqi government than the U.S.
The Trump administration seems to be betting that economic pressure alone will force Iran to reduce its regional entanglements. But the U.S. refusal to increase the American military footprint in the region means that Iran’s Shi’ite proxies will likely continue to prevail. America’s Arab allies possess the latest American high-tech weapons but don’t have the capacity to defeat Iran’s militias on the ground.
While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with U.S. logistical support—continue to bomb Yemen, creating the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Twitter account blames Iran for the crisis. It is an “Alice Through the Looking Glass” interpretation that has drawn cries of hypocrisy given U.S. neglect of human rights in more authoritarian countries and the shameful treatment of asylum-seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Iran, of course, is guilty of many human rights abuses. Iranians inside and outside Iran profoundly want change and to see the country achieve its true potential. U.S. accession to the JCPOA provided a basis and a diplomatic channel for Washington to aggressively pursue those other goals. But having quit the nuclear deal despite Iranian compliance, the Trump administration cannot realistically expect more concessions from Tehran on other issues.
Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are her own.