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Iran’s game of brinkmanship is doomed to failure

Sep 04,2018 - Last updated at Sep 04,2018

Time is running out for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his government. Last week, he was summoned by parliament to answer questions on the country’s mounting economic crisis, and in a rare rebuke his explanations, he blamed the economic woes on an “American conspiracy”, were rejected and he now faces a judiciary review. Two of his ministers were impeached last month, putting further pressure on Rouhani.

Iran’s economy had nosedived after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal last May and re-imposed biting US sanctions. Trump had warned foreign companies that they too will face penalties if they choose to do business with Iran. The EU had pledged to save the nuclear deal and protect European companies from possible US sanctions. But four months later and after a series of meetings, the deal continues to rest on shaky grounds.

Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appeared skeptical when he warned Rouhani last week, through comments published on his website, that “there is no problem with negotiations and keeping contact with the Europeans, but you should give up hope on them over economic issues or the nuclear deal”.

The European front is no longer united as well. Last week, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for further negotiations with Tehran saying that “Iran cannot avoid discussions, negotiations on three other major subjects that worry us, the future of Iran’s nuclear commitments after 2025, the ballistic question and the fact there is a sort of ballistic proliferation on the part of Iran…and the role Iran plays to destabilise the whole region”.  Iran’s foreign ministry dismissed Le Drian’s statements and complained of “bullying and excessive demands” on the EU’s side.

But Iran’s troubles will get worse when a second batch of US sanctions kick in early November. This time the sanctions will target Iran’s main commodity and foreign currency source; its oil exports. Washington has threatened countries that buy Iranian oil and even China, a major importer, hinted that it may cut down its imports from Iran. Bloomberg said last week that Iranian oil exports had already fallen in August to 2.1 million barrel per day.

Experts estimate Iran’s losses from current US sanctions at $5 billion a month and that is the main reason behind the collapse of the Iranian currency and sharp decline of imports of essential goods. Added to that, Iran continues to suffer from high unemployment, especially among youth, and deteriorating public services. In reality, neither Rouhani nor any other leader can offset the effects of US sanctions on the local economy. But that is not the only reason for Iran’s economic qualms. Since Khamenei took over in 1989, the role of the Revolutionary Guard and the clerical establishment has grown exponentially. Those two major players have impeded attempts for genuine economic and political reforms, which began with president Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s. Further attempts to steer the country towards a more liberal and transparent rule were nipped in the bud following the 2009 presidential elections when the religious establishment backed conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against potential reformist candidates.

Furthermore, those two bodies are the driving force behind Iran’s regional meddling in the affairs of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Such interventions come at a hefty price; both economically and politically. It is no secret that the majority of Iranian youth do not approve of the ideologically driven adventures of their leaders in the region, nor do they embrace their anti-US rhetoric.

Today, sporadic popular protests, which began late last year, continue in various parts of the country amid worsening economic conditions. Iran’s religious leadership has rejected Washington’s conditions to lift the sanctions and rebuffed Trump’s readiness for unconditional talks.

Top Iranian military and Revolutionary Guard have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea passageways in retaliation for any disruption of Iranian oil exports. Such action would prove foolish and would put Tehran on a military collision course with Washington.

Also there were reports that Iran had delivered ballistic missiles to loyalist groups in Iraq in a bid to put pressure on Gulf countries. Again, such move would only isolate Iran further and would have little effect on a possible military confrontation.

It would be wrong on Khamenei’s part to abandon Rouhani at this crucial stage and allow hardline Revolutionary Guard figures to take over. There are speculations that if Rouhani is impeached, an interim military government would take over, led by hawkish Gen. Qassem Suliemani. That would be a recipe for disaster and could be the trigger for a major regional showdown; one that Iran is sure to lose. Instead, Iran should not dismiss the opportunity to engage in talks with the US, while initiating a meaningful dialogue with its neighbours. Iranian leaders have a choice; either face further domestic troubles that will lead to chaos, or take serious steps towards normalising ties with Iran’s neighbours and end its meddling in regional affairs. The current politics of brinkmanship will certainly fail.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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