New sanctions against Iran can be viewed as a warning to Tehran to halt the activities of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Trump has set a deadline that ends in the first two weeks of May to amend the nuclear deal with Iran. The political arena is troubled as France, Britain and Germany began to move backward in the last few weeks to please Trump in an attempt to convince him not to withdraw from the agreement. Meanwhile, these countries proposed new sanctions to restrain Iran’s activity in terms of its ballistic missiles and its regional activity in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Iran seems to be “working as usual” as it’s using the Houthis in Yemen to launch missiles that target Riyadh upon Soleimani’s orders. However, Iran cannot continue to pursue this policy of “working as usual” for a long time because the political campaign launched by some European countries is tantamount to issuing a warning to Tehran to decrease Soleimani’s military activity which may reignite the problems that Iran suffered from before the nuclear deal was sealed – or perhaps cause even worse problems.
Prospect of US withdrawal from nuke deal
Regardless of what Washington decides to do, Iran has to show relative self-control and at least act responsibly. However, internally, it is probably difficult to maintain a unified front, as all old contentions will resurface. Even if the recent wave of protests seemed to have apparently ebbed, there is an ongoing low-level public unrest against the situation in Iran. Although the regime thinks the containment of the recent protests as being a success, it’s only a matter of time before fresh wave of strong protests erupt again. The US’ withdrawal from the deal or imposing additional sanctions may motivate a new popular uprising.
Ever since the nuclear deal was signed, Iran succeeded in attracting more than $15 billion in foreign investment. However this is not enough for the people who are in dire need of economic relief, especially when a large part of these investments need to be activated. While President Hassan Rouhani is aware of the need to translate economic growth into improving the quality of the Iranian people’s lives, Soleimani has completely different plans as he does not intend to allow Iran’s citizens to enjoy the fruits of the nuclear deal. On the contrary, Soleimani is investing massive funds which Iran secured after signing the deal for his adventures in other countries resulting in domestic and foreign criticism.
Loss of Iranian lives, capital
According to Iranian reports, the country has spent around $20 billion on fighting in Syria since 2011. It sent a large number of Revolutionary Guard members to Syria, funded Shiite militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan, supplied huge quantities of ballistic missiles, military equipment and arms to the Syrian army and Hezbollah, continued to invest in civil infrastructure in Syria and provided financial aid to the Assad regime.
Soleimani did all this to save the Syrian regime and Iran has got nothing in return. Therefore, Iran intends to attain return on its investment and resume the series of civil agreements with the Syrian government. Since the regime in Syria has relatively stabilized, it preferred to rehabilitate itself without relying on Iran and has headed more towards Europe. Given the competition between Russia and Iran on civil and economic resources there, Syria sees itself more committed to Russian President Vladimir Putin as Iranian presence has become more of a burden than an advantage. It’s been recently noticed that the Syrian government is creating obstacles and obstructing financial cooperation with Iran to prevent it from attaining financial gains. However, this has not prevented Soleimani from expanding Iran’s investment in Syria, which are expected to grow when the fighting is over. This is in addition to millions that are given to Syria at the expense of restoring the Iranian economy.
The story of Iran with Yemen will not be tragic if the end is not known in advance like Syria. Iran has been deeply involved in the Yemeni swamp for years. A UN report in 2015 said Iran has been transferring weapons shipments to the Houthis since 2009. Ever since 2011, Iran has increased its aid to the Houthis, including transferring millions of dollars to them. The tragedy is that after all these years of fighting in Yemen, no solution has been reached to justify Iran’s large investments there.
In addition to the financial cost, Iran has also suffered human losses. So far Soleimani has sacrificed many of “his proxy fighters” and thousands of Houthis have been killed in Yemen. Many Hezbollah and Shiite militia fighters have also been killed in Syria. Last year, the number of the Quds brigade fatalities increased dramatically. Some Iranian political leaders have voiced their worry that in the light of the unrest in several related fields, Iranian human losses will increase. Therefore, Iran may soon find itself confronting direct escalation on its territories.
As for Tehran, the protests which have been ongoing for months have not succeeded in changing the concept of the security command which has not yet comprehended the hefty price the country is paying for regional reinforcements. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars are being transferred from the national treasury to build military forces, cover the activities of the Quds brigade and develop surface-to-surface missiles which are expected to be the reason for imposing more sanctions on Iran.
This Iranian activity is viewed as leading towards a collision. The millions spent will turn the engineer and executor of Iran’s foreign policy, i.e. Soleimani, into the man whose behavior will lead to approving the framework of a new agreement that imposes additional sanctions on Tehran. The momentum of international investment which began last year has in fact decreased, and it’s expected to be undermined due to concerns over the global financial system and worries of international companies regarding the consequences of additional sanctions.
Iran will continue to suffer from banking problems that will increase the international isolation it has suffered from in the past. Anyway, Iran will need Europe to go back to negotiations either in terms of the nuclear agreement or in terms of an agreement with a different framework. Following months of disputes between the two hawks, France and Britain and European countries that are more moderate, like Germany, a unified European front has now emerged in terms of a policy towards Iran. Europe agrees to keep the nuclear deal despite American pressure; however it is fully aware that Iranian military activity which is led by Soleimani cannot be ignored. This harmonizes with the general atmosphere in Washington which is demanding imposing new sanctions on Iran due to its ballistic missiles and regional destructive activities.
An American politician involved in the matter told me that the comprehensive agreement between all these parties is an important wake-up call and a chance for the Iranian people to take to the street and also a chance for reformist powers and Rouhani to halt Soleimani’s activities and save Iran from falling back into complete isolation and the consequences which this shall entail.
This article was first published in Arabic.
Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.