Donald Trump is demanding the Iranian regime to do what it is unable to achieve or to respond to. He demands a final divorce from the nuclear dream, which some hawks consider an “insurance policy” against US surprises.
He also requests that the revolution be forced to retire under a state that maintains its army and “guards” within its borders, and avoids infiltrating into the maps of others, destabilizing them and encircling them with rockets. He demands that Iran complies with the conditions of a natural state, which does not give itself the right to use oil revenues and militias to restructure the territory according to its plans, and to keep a firm grip on the decisions of regional capitals.
Those familiar with the Iranian regime say that igniting the revolution is one of the conditions of life of this system. Refraining from “exporting the revolution” undermines the entire project and puts the system under the test of the country’s economic figures, which are not encouraging at all.
This is how a new chapter begins today in the four-decade US-Iranian confrontation. A political, diplomatic and economic confrontation, interspersed with some security incidents, but without sliding into a broad and direct military battle. Some believe that the new chapter may be the most difficult, and its outcome will determine Iran’s location on the regional map, and the size of its role.
US sanctions, which came into force at dawn this morning, target the vital oil and banking sectors. Analysts agree that the sanctions will cause great damage to the Iranian economy, despite Iranian ingenuity in circumventing the sanctions. There is no exaggeration when saying that regional countries are fully concerned about the new chapter of confrontation. Tehran is deeply involved in the region’s conflicts and for decades has been running a large-scale coup against their previous balances and traditional roles.
In light of the North Korean precedent, Trump dreams that painful sanctions will persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table, with the willingness to change its behavior this timeGhassan Charbel
On the eve of the new chapter, exchanged messages were blunt and heated. President Trump clearly said that the “objective is to force the regime into a clear choice… Either abandon its destructive behavior or continue down the path toward economic disaster.” He also called on the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions, change its behavior, respect the rights of its people and return in good faith to the negotiating table.
Through multiple statements by its officials, the US Administration drew the features of its orientation, and stressed that the goal was to change Iran’s behavior, not change its regime, and that the door was open to return to the negotiating table, if Tehran decides to seriously reconsider its conduct and ambitions.
On the other side, messages were also clear. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran, recalling what happened on November 4, 1979. On that day, demonstrators stormed into the US embassy in Tehran. For over 444 days, angry students detained 52 Americans.
The purpose was to humiliate the “Great Satan” and to suggest that America itself was taken into small cages like the hostages of its embassy. Iranians were loudly chanting: “Death to America.” For decades, those slogans have been repeated. It is clear, however, that America has not died, and the evidence is that it is launching a new round of unprecedented sanctions against the Iranian regime.
As part of the mobilization efforts to confront the new phase, IRGC leaders have been insistent on the struggle. Spiritual leader Ali Khamenei declared that Trump “disgraced the rest of the US prestige and liberal democracy.”
Before his election as president, Trump considered the nuclear deal with Iran a “disaster”, noting that it gave the regime a certificate of good conduct without changing its behavior. He said that the deal allowed Tehran to use its financial and diplomatic revenues to maintain its ballistic program and its destabilizing policy aimed at changing systems of countries and the identities of cities.
There were those who believed that Trump would hint at abandoning the agreement but would not execute his threat, especially as the other two signatories protested his move. But this is Trump. It is hard to predict how far he would go with a file or another.
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The new chapter of US sanctions begins at a time when the difficulties of the Iranian economy are no longer concealed. There have been clear indications in the past months: the depreciation of the riyal and rising inflation and unemployment. The Iranian protests also expressed a popular outrage that was manifested in the strikes of truck drivers and teachers. Moreover, the Iranian ordinary people feel that they have to prepare for more difficult days that require them to further tighten the belt.
In contrast, Iranian authorities have little choice. It is clear that they are trying to lure a stronger or clearer European position. Nothing suggests that Europe can play an exceptional role in this context. The “financial mechanism” that has been discussed will not work before months, and its results may be limited. Major European companies prefer safety; and it is difficult to choose Iranian markets, if it means losing the US markets.
Europe is not living its best days. Britain continues to prepare divorce proceedings. The rebellion against the spirit of the European Union is spreading. Angela Merkel is not willing to seek a new mandate, and there are those who expect Germany to witness some political instability.
Betting on time
Iran is betting on time. It may be betting on its ability to wait for the end of Trump’s term. It is also counting on European voices that believe that sanctions are affecting the people, and not this type of regime… and that the reformist movement in Iran will be the first victim of any new sanctions that the regime will consider as a blockade on the country and not against it.
In light of the North Korean precedent, Trump dreams that painful sanctions will persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table, with the willingness to change its behavior this time. We must wait to see if Iran will be able to resist sanctions within its borders or move its regional papers here and there.
Will the Iranian reactions reach the level of direct or indirect harassment of American soldiers in the region or the security of straits and corridors?
A new chapter begins. Here are the winds of sanctions blowing on the Iranian economy. In the wind season, you have to search for the seat belt.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan's Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.