Corona Days in Iran: “Maximum Pressure” Versus “Maximum Resistance”
ACIS Iran Pulse no. 106 | June 10, 2020
Iran started 2020 facing serious challenges. Domestically, the economic distress intensified, tension between the rival camps increased, public’s trust in the regime declined, unprecedented public protests erupted, and were met with a harsher response than previous popular outbursts. Abroad, the conflict with the United States and its allies – particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia – escalated; and even among its allies – in Iraq and Lebanon – opposition to Iran’s involvement was voiced. Faced with such acute “background conditions,” Iran turned into the regional epicenter of Covid-19, presenting the country even more severe challenges. The sanctions were further tightened, the price of petroleum dropped precipitously, large segments of the economy ground to a halt, and unemployment climbed further exacerbating popular distress and weakening people’s trust in the leadership. To confront the policy of “maximum pressure” imposed by the US, Iran placed its hope in “maximum resistance.” The combination nearly brought the two countries into direct conflict and perilously close to combat, although apparently neither party planned nor desired that outcome.
Ongoing domestic challenges in the shadow of sanctions
The waves of protests that began at the end of 2017 intensified in late 2019 and reached a climax shortly before coronavirus was confirmed in Iran. They expressed popular discontent with government policy and citizens’ lack of confidence in the regime (largely triggered by the downing a Ukrainian airliner in early January 2020, then attempting to conceal the event and failing to immediately take responsibility). The protests voiced the people’s frustration with their unmet expectations, mainly of freedom and welfare – the principle aspirations of the 1979 revolution – while criticizing the vast spending beyond its borders. Unlike the Green Movement of 2009, the protesters were mostly from the lower classes and their main emphasis was on social justice (unlike the protests in 2009 that emphasized primarily political justice). Instead of “Where is my vote?” protesters now asked “Where is my oil money?” Slogans like, “You use religion as a springboard and leave the people miserable,” “Neither Islam nor the Koran, I will sacrifice my life for Iran,” calls for an Iranian Republic instead of an Islamic Republic, together with chants of “Death to Khamenei” aimed a whetted arrow straight at the heart of the regime.
In an act of defiance, protesting students seemed to take pains to avoid trampling American and Israeli flags, as is the customary practice in Iran. Some even chanted, “The enemy isn’t the US, our enemy is here.” Responding to the government claim that downing the airplane was a human mistake, some people chanted, “Our human mistake was February 1979,” the Islamic Revolution. The protest were subdued with a strong arm, which struck a further blow to the prestige of the regime and its politics. This was compounded by disenchantment at the way Covid-19 was treated and the feeling that the government delayed dealing with the problem, and again concealed the truth (the first admission of Covid-19 cases were simultaneous with the first death, on February 19, 2020).
The policy of maximum pressure and Covid-19 did not create Iran’s economic problems but did significantly exacerbate them. Petroleum exports plunged from 2.5 million b\d to 0.5 million and even fewer, and the price per barrel dropped precipitously. The budget for the fiscal year beginning March 21, was based on the projection of petroleum revenues of approximately USD 10 billion, twice the amount estimated only a month later. The economy contracted by 7.65% in 2019, and was expected to shrink another 6% in 2020. Unemployment grew, the currency declined, the gross national product dropped, the commercial deficit increased, the foreign currency reserves plummeted and gaps in society enlarged. As a result, the despair and anger of disadvantaged people and the unemployed swelled.
On the political front, the tension between the pragmatic-reformists (in all their variations) led by President Rouhani, and the conservative-hardliners (with their various perspectives) led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, intensified. The latter, whose hold over power is long-established, took an additional step ahead with the Majlis (Parliament) elections on February 21, when they ousted most of the pragmatists from their seats. Not one of the 30 members representing Tehran in the outgoing Majlis was reelected. Later, in May, the Majlis elected General Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (a conservative protégée of the Supreme Leader, former Commander of the IRGC’s Air Force and former Tehran Mayor) as Speaker. He was, thus, the first Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander to head any of the three branches of government. With the appointment of Ebrahim Raisi to head the judiciary in March 2019, combined with the supremacy of the Supreme Leader (since 1989) and allied, unelected agencies, such as the IRGC, the Basij and the powerful revolutionary foundations (bonyads), the conservatives have further tightened their grip on the centers of power.
Moreover, since the election of President Trump and especially after his withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on May 8, 2018, Rouhani and his supporters have been significantly weakened. With the pandemic, despite the president’s attempt to lead the battle, the operative tools in dealing with a national disaster of this magnitude are in the hands of the IRGC, who used them to restore their prestige, which had been stained by the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and the continued flights of Mahan Air to China even after the pandemic had spread in China and in Iran. They took over the streets, sanitize bus stops, provide masks and packages of groceries, and their commanders volunteered to cut 20% of their salary. While during the demonstrations, they were on the side of the oppressor, they now present themselves as the people’s saviors.
Despite the challenges, the predictions that the Iranian economy would soon collapse and that one further push would cause the regime to crumble, have not yet materialized. Despite the sanctions, Iran made significant advancements in science and technology, expanded local production, and reduced its dependence on petroleum. It has shown determination and resilience, perhaps even a certain amount of immunity to sanctions, with which it has been struggling for forty years. However, all these is insufficient to overcome the severe challenge of the economic malaise, with the added pressure of Covid-19 and its ensuing impacts for long time.
Iran and the United States: Escalation and restraint
For the conservatives, hatred of the United States has become almost an article faith. The nuclear deal did nothing to change the suspicious, hostile approach of Khamenei, who declared then that the call “Death to America” is part of Iran’s revolutionary DNA. Even if Americans smile and extend a hand, he maintained, they are holding a dagger in their other hand, to stab you in the back. This turned even worse after Trump’s election, his withdrawal from the nuclear accords, and the policy of “maximum pressure.” The tension further exacerbated by the pandemic, and the growing pressure by the US. In his speech on the eve of the Persian New Year, Khamenei called the US Iran’s most nefarious enemy. Some people say, he claimed, that they had even created the virus and engineered it so that it would be especially harmful to Iranians – using data they had acquired about their genetics. He quoted a verse from the Koran which says that two types of foes – human and demonic (jinni) – always cooperate against their common enemies. This, he said, remains true to our days (Khamenei's website, March 22, 2020). With the spread of Covid-19, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif initially attempted to arouse international empathy that would lead to easing sanctions and, perhaps, open channels of communications. However, they were quickly forced to follow the Supreme Leader, and decry the US’s “economic and medical terrorism.”
President Trump’s opposition to JCPOA is not unrelated to his aversion to President Obama and his policies. JCPOA was in his opinion “the worst deal in history.” On May 8, 2018 he announced his decision to withdraw from the accords, and Secretary of State Pompeo rushed to outline 12 conditions for a new agreement. Each of them was difficult; together they were impossible for Iran to accept. This further weakened Iranian pragmatists, led to more biting sanctions, but in the end, did not stop Iran from advancing its nuclear program (without withdrawing from it) and helped the regime consolidate the people around the flag.
With Covid-19, the United States did offer to assist Iran, but only on the condition that it request help, and while making it clear that any removal of sanctions was conditional on a change in its behavior. Trump even said that if Iran were to request ventilators, “I would send them… We have stockpiled ventilators” (Al Arabiya, April 19, 2020). Rouhani rejected the US offer calling it the “biggest lie in history,” and retorted, “if you would like to help, take your brutal troops out of our way, stop your criminal behavior, and get out of our region (ISNA, March 24, 2020). On March 28, Rouhani went farther to compare the coronavirus and the United States: “If you respond to the virus aggressively it disappears, but if you show weakness, it gains Chutzpa (por-ru) and attacks more vigorously. Just like the great powers” (Rouydad24.ir/fa).
In this context, on March 26 United States imposed additional sanctions on IRGC and its affiliate organizations. When Iran requested a loan from the International Monetary Fund for dealing with coronavirus, the US put obstacles in its way. It also called for continuing the Security Council embargo on selling weapons to Iran (scheduled to expire in October). If not, as one of the sponsors of the 2015 agreement, it will demand a snapback imposing the sanctions that were in place prior to JCPOA, using the rationale that Iran had violated its terms – despite the fact that it is the US who pulled out. In response, Iran threatened to halt the IAEA inspection, and withdraw from the nuclear proliferation treaty.
Beyond its borders, Iran has deepened its regional involvement in the area it considers its “strategic depth” – from the Mediterranean Sea to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, centered on the “Shia crescent,” which long ago grew into a full moon. In this realm, Iran challenges the US and its allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, and helps Shia militias in Iraq attack American targets.
Naturally, the chief interest of Iran is the Persian Gulf, which has become the primary arena of conflict between Iran and the United States and its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. There, Iran takes initiatives and provokes its rivals. In May 2019, there was an incident of underwater sabotage (attributed to Iran) against cargo ships in the Gulf of Oman, including tankers from the UAE and Saudi Arabia; in June, Iran shot down an American UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) over the Persian Gulf; in July, the IRGC commandeered an oil tanker flying a British flag in the Hormuz Strait; and in September, a fatal attack on Saudi petroleum infrastructure was attributed to Iran. Then, following the attack on General Qasem Soleimani Commander of IRGC’s Quds Force, Iran fired rockets at American base at Ayn al Asad, at the time and on several later occasions.
Iran demonstrated its resolve with series of additional actions. On April 15, ships of the IRGC provocatively and tauntingly approached ships from the American fleet, and the following week (April 22), IRGC launched its first military satellite into the orbit. It also announced plans to launch a submarine equipped with a nuclear propulsion system, upgrade the range of its naval missiles, improve the (already impressive) precision of its ground-to-ground missiles, and purchase stealth UAVs. General Ali Hajizadeh, commander of IRGC Aerospace Force, said that Americans talk a lot, but they are helpless in the face of Iranian power (MehrNews, IribNews). The message is clear: Iran is a regional power, and does not fear confrontation.
Despite its military inferiority, Iran has some incentives and advantages in the current confrontation with the US: it is fighting to defend its homeland, the revolution and preserve the regime. Conversely, the US is operating far from home, has declared its willingness to return home, and is anxious about losses, all the more so in an election year.
Both sides are sending mixed signals. The US uses harsh language, but from an Iranian perspective, its policies seem somewhat hesitant. Obama and Trump drew red lines, but when they were tested, they – rightly – avoided being drawn into perilous clashes. Thus, Obama avoided a significant response in Syria (2013) when Assad’s regime crossed his red line by using chemical weapons. Similarly, Trump backtracked from his decision to attack Iranian targets after it shot down the UAV in July 2019, despite his threats. The killing of Soleimani was the watershed that shocked and apparently surprised Iran. In this instance, it was Iran’s response that was measured but the US also restrained itself in face of the Iranian counter-attack. Later, on April 22, Trump sounded more determined, and instructed the US Navy to sink any ship that harasses its forces. On the other hand, the IRGC commander replied that Iranian forces would destroy every vessel that threatens its security in the Gulf.
Furthermore, coronavirus has not diminished Iran’s determination to meet its nuclear goals, and it is unknown what exactly it is doing in this area under a veil of secrecy and the corona cloud that makes international inspection more difficult. According to a leaked IAEA document from 5 June, Iran continued to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5% (only 3.67% is allowed by the accord), denied its inspectors access to old nuclear sites, boosted its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and now reportedly possesses about eight times as much nuclear fuel as was permitted under the nuclear accord. Iran’s production of material has clearly slipped below the one-year buffer that was central to the 2015 agreement (Deutsche Welle and NY Times). Thus, on the crucial nuclear issue, the clock is ticking and the timeline for Iran to achieve its goals is being shortened.
Iran is a complex state and, after four decades of Islamic rule, largely remains an enigma. No doubt, its regional status has improved over the past decade. Its main achievements may not stem from the appeal of its revolutionary message, but rather from shrewd exploitation of opportunities provided by its enemies and the collapse of the political system in some neighboring states. Thus, the overthrow of its two major enemies, Iraq and Afghanistan, by US-led coalitions, its advancement in Lebanon after the collapse of the political order there (following Palestinian and Syrian involvement, but especially the Israeli invasion in 1982), the weakening the Arab nation-states (mainly Syria and Yemen) after the Arab Spring, and the threats posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Iran, thus, was able to exploit regional confluences to expand its influence beyond its borders, despite the challenges they continue to pose (see below).
Iran fighting on two fronts simultaneously: Coronavirus and the United States
Sourse: Iran Zamin, March 19, 2020
Spirits of continuity and change
Recently, domestic voices discounting the importance of Iran’s strategic depth have been amplified. Such voices were also heard during the recent riots, using slogans like, “Leave Syria, think about us,” or “No Gaza, No Lebanon, I will sacrifice my life [only] for Iran” and the calls to prefer national interests over dogma. The pragmatists are declining, and the president is struggling to maintain his position until the end of his second and final term in 2021, yet they continue to express their positions. They have broad public support, but limited power. The conservatives may enjoy less support, but their power is immeasurably stronger.
However, support for greater pragmatism continue to be voiced, sometimes in a more daring tone. In a video clip on the eve of New Year, Zarif, as is expected, harshly condemned the US, which he said is aiming to make Iran “an island besieged in ocean of threats and suffering.” But then he spoke in a somewhat emotional, personal tone, revealing his support for change and the depth of the gulf between the rival camps at home. In confronting coronavirus and the sanctions, he said, there must be no distinction between people who are defined as “ours” (khodi) and those who are “not ours” (gheir-e khodi) or between opponents and supporters of the policy of the regime — everyone under attack from coronavirus and the sanctions is Iranian and of “our own”! Even more revealing was his assertion that to win the fight against coronavirus and the sanctions, Iran needs “cognitive overhaul” (khane-tekani-ye dhehni), “innovation in style of governance,” and to enter “a new era of diplomacy” (Fararu.com).
In an article in the reformist paper Sharq (March 26), Mohsen Aminzadeh (Deputy Foreign Minister under President Khatami) emphasized that military capability must be backed by economic resilience, which is the prerequisite for power. Therefore, it is essential to defuse tension with the US in order to escape from the current “international isolation.” Even those who advocate relations with China and the East need to understand that the “Eastern option” is contingent on “escaping the trap of the US boycott.” His daring conclusion is that Iran should “return to diplomacy,” without the involvement of “irrelevant [revolutionary] organizations [nehadha]” (Sharq, March 26, 2020). When on July 30, 2018, President Trump announced his willingness to meet with the Iranian leaders, General Muhammad Ali Jafari, commander of IRGC until 2019, was quick to respond that the Iranian people will not allow their leaders to negotiate with the US. In contrast, Ali Motahari (Deputy Chairman of Majlis until February 2020 and the son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, assassinated in May 1979), wrote an open letter to Jafari (August 2, 2018).
While accepting that the conditions then were not ripe for diplomacy, he made it unequivocally clear: on the question of whether or not to negotiate with the US, Jafari and the IRGC must obey the “decisions of the highest institutions of the regime.” To leave no room for mistake: such declarations must be made by “the elected representative, namely the president and no one else” (ISNA). In 2020, other pragmatists advocated negotiating with the United States, believing that they could now conduct talks from a position of power. They were divided, however, between those who advocated talks before the elections, and those who preferred to wait until November, in anticipation of a new president; depending on their assessments of the election results. A linkage to the elections was also made by President Trump in June (see below).
Nonetheless, top US and Iranian leaders have barricaded themselves in rigid positions, considering softness a weakness, detrimental to their national interest and their own honor. At the same time, the military activity of both countries, primarily in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, and the clashes between allies of the US – mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia in Syria and Yemen respectively – have aggravated the conflict and threatened to deteriorate the situation further, something both sides apparently wish to avoid. The killing of Soleimani made it clear to Iran that Trump can’t be trusted to confine himself to red lines. Israel has acted intensively against Iranian targets in Syria, and Saudi Arabia created additional difficulties for petroleum policy and in Yemen. The protests after the downing of the Ukrainian aircraft are still engraved in the regime’s consciousness.
Moreover, no one knows what the public’s mood will be when it returns to the new routine. For the moment, it is infuriated that news of the disease was not disclosed promptly, the lack of appropriate response to the pandemic that could have saved lives, and lack of transparency. According to various evidence, the first infected Iranians were discovered as early as December, and the number of infected and deceased is much higher than officially reported (New Yorker). Also, Iran is stretching its regional muscles far beyond its capabilities, involving it in confrontations in numerous and distant fronts, suffering attacks (mainly in Syria, including one on June 5), and incurring significant outlays and loss of lives (beyond deaths among the militias). President Trump has his own reasons to avoid major confrontation, given Covid-19, the economic challenges and social tensions only few months before the elections.
Despite the rage, certain recent developments may signal a mutual will to lower the flames, at least temporarily. Iran actually gave a green light for the election of Mustafa Al-Qadhimi as Iraq’s Prime Minister (May 7), even though he is considered to be close to the US. Washington allowed Iraq an additional sanctions waiver for four months, allowing it to purchase Iranian oil, thus providing Iran with much needed hard currency. Iran is reportedly reducing attacks from its proxy militias on American forces. While Iraq and the US are conducting strategic dialogue, there appears to be an appreciation in Iran that the US can play a constructive role in stabilizing Iraq, which also serves its interests (agsiw). Iran has demanded that US exit Iraq immediately, but according to Iranian sources, it now estimates that the departure will be only in “less than two years” (Tasnim).
In the Afghan arena, at a recent virtual meeting of a forum of six countries that border on Afghanistan, plus the US and Russia, Zalmay Khalilzad (former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Baghdad) and an Iranian representative sat together. Iran is helping settling disputes there among rival Afghan factions, and participates in talks with the Taliban, with whom the US reached a tentative agreement. American diplomat Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Peace, confirmed (May 20) that Iran now plays a constructive role both in Iraq and with the Houthis in Yemen (AtlantaCouncil). Also, the US removed its air defense systems from Saudi Arabia, and Israeli sources have reported withdrawal or relocation of Iranian forces in Syria.
The US also failed to respond to attacks on its forces in Iraq, in March, despite fatalities. In a exchange deal, early in June, Iran released a US Navy veteran, while the US freed an Iranian-American doctor and Iranian scientist. Trump then attempted to use the swap in service of his political campaign. He tweeted (4 May): “Thank you to Iran, it shows a deal is possible.” He also advised them not to wait until after the elections: “I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!” Zarif tweeted the next day: “We had a deal when you entered office.” “Your advisers … made a dumb bet. Up to you to decide when you want to fix it.” Hesameddin Ashena, a policy adviser to Rouhani responded: “You are going down on November 3rd and we know that.” So “you’ll need to offer much more than Obama did! (NY Times)” Brian Hook, the US point man on Iran policy, said that the Administration tried unsuccessfully to expand the swap talks beyond consular matters but Tehran “has not taken us up on this opportunity now” (Deccan Herald) In any case, the authority in Iran lays elsewhere.
By contrast, five tankers carrying fuel from Iran arrived in Venezuela recently in defiance of US sanctions targeting both countries. On May 27, President Trump canceled the exemption from sanctions for the remaining nuclear projects anchored in the 2015 agreement, in particular the Arak reactor and Tehran research reactor, virtually emptying -JCPOA of almost all content. On the Israeli-Jewish front, Iran launched a cyberattack against Israel’s water infrastructure in April, there was an attack on the tomb of Mordechai and Esther in Hamadan, and on Jerusalem Day (May 22) an anti-Semitic tone was added to the usual rage against Israel, using the irritating words “the final solution” (even if not with their Nazi connotations). Meanwhile, the US and Iran continue to rage, and threaten each other. Where they operate in close proximity , in the Persian Gulf, for example, the situation might easily deteriorate even if neither of the two sides so desire.
It is unclear to what extent the statements in praise of change in Iran (voiced by some pragmatic circles), and the actual developments (with government support) may presage a possible change, even if only tactical. Yet, under the prevailing circumstances, a strategic change and renewed negotiations on the nuclear program, despite their enormous significance for both sides, for the region and beyond, are much more difficult to achieve. At this stage, those who want are incapable, and those who have the ability don’t show real interest. Moreover, there is apparently no responsible adult able to help the two sides climb down the tall trees they have scaled.
* Professor Emeritus David Menashri is an internationally recognized scholar and lecturer on modern Iranian history and the founding director of the ACIS. He is the author of many books and articles, among them Education and the Making of Modern Iran, which was recently published in Persian. The unauthorized translation, published by Hekmat Sina and Iran's Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, is presented as one of the most comprehensive and important books on the history of education in Iran.
T h e A l l i a n c e C e n t e r f o r I r a n i a n S t u d i e s ( A C I S )
Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel
Email: Irancen@tauex.tau.ac.il; Phone: +972-3-640-9510
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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 106 ● June 09, 2020
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