After US President Donald Trump’s decision to end waivers on Iranian oil sales on May 2, the Islamic Republic’s regime finds itself in more dire straits than ever before.
The Islamic Republic’s plan to hunker down and wait for hurricane Trump to pass is falling apart. While the regime has been suffering from the resumption of sanctions increasing pressure on Iran’s currency and financial system over the past several months, this latest blow to oil exports will cripple the economy.
In early 2018, protests in Mashhad spread after Tehran to several dozen Iranian cities. These grass-roots protests called out Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by name and represented a far more significant threat to the leadership than the elite-led Green Revolution of 2009. Iran witnessed unprecedented protests across socio-economic divides, but the mass mobilization in areas taken for granted as the backbone of the regime’s popular base set off the loudest alarm bells in Tehran.
Iran’s advocates in the west argue that sanctioning the regime would only further entrench it domestically. They contend that sanctions hurt the average Iranian, and would therefore cause people to rally around the leadership and set aside other grievances.
In simple terms, the argument in favor of lifting sanctions is that they “don’t work.” This is false for several reasons. Chief among them is the fact that it was due to sanctions pressure that Iran came to the table to negotiate with the P5+1, which led to the JCPOA in 2015.
Another point often ignored is the value sanctions have in eroding the regime’s resources. In a recent interview with Al Arabiya, US special representative to Iran Brian Hook said, “We had very good meetings with both of the Saudis and the Emiratis, and they share a lot of our national security goals with respect to Iran. So it’s in our interest and it’s in their interest to deny the Iranian regime the revenue it needs to fund its foreign policy.”
Iran’s extensive regional proxy network – comprised of several dozen militias in Iraq and Syria, two in Bahrain, one in Yemen, and its flagship proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah – relies on Iranian funding to sustain operations and buy loyalty. The regime cannot fund these groups with its own currency. It needs US dollars, and because of sanctions, it does not have enough.
After the US announcement, Iranian media cited an Iranian Oil Ministry source threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway that Gulf states depend on to transport oil to Asia.
A day before, firebrand General Hossein Salami was appointed as head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Salami infamously gloated about the capture of US Marines in January 2016. “The marines were crying when they were being captured,” he said, according to Fars News. “The Americans humbly admitted our might and power.”
This leaves the Iranian regime with two choices. The first: To capitulate to the Trump administration’s list of 12 demands, many of which would strip the revolutionary regime of its raison d’être, and channel the regime's resources exclusively towards the betterment of the people of Iran. The second: To provoke conventional war in the Gulf or with Israel, an option that would put the Iranian regime at an extreme disadvantage.
With poor conventional military capabilities, Iran does not stand a chance in an all-out conventional war with its well-equipped Arab neighbors, let alone with the US. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Iran has relied on asymmetric warfare to fight its enemies, often using the network of proxies it has built up in the region. The Islamic Republic's competitive advantage does not lie in conventional warfare.
Iran could attack Israel rather than its Gulf opponents in an effort to reshuffle the regional cards. But such a move is fraught with risk.
Although Israel would likely incur a level of damage and loss of life it has not witnessed since 1948, Iran’s most dependable ally, Hezbollah, will surely take a significant mauling in such a war. While it may not be fully destroyed, it is unlikely that Hezbollah would be able to rebuild as quickly and at the same scale as after the 2006 war to once again pose a threat to Israel, which would undermine Iranian deterrence.
With the international community and an exasperated Iranian population watching, the regime in Tehran has to make a decision sooner rather than later. Renouncing its revolutionary regional agenda and joining the international community is in the interest of the Iranian people, regional security and stability, and ultimately the future of Iran. Provoking conventional war, in the best-case scenario, will leave the Iranian regime ruling over a heap of rubble and facing an angry population.
The regime will soon find itself in a position where it must choose between firing its weapons and laying them down. If the Iranian regime chooses not to make concessions, it will be forced to martyr itself. The question is: Would it be toppled from within or from without?