Iran and US locked in public relations battle

Iran is portraying the sanctions as inhumane while Washington is painting a picture of an aggressive regime that fans militancy abroad.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Fuelling acrimony. Iranians walk past a building painted with anti-US graffiti in Tehran.                (AFP)
Fuelling acrimony. Iranians walk past a building painted with anti-US graffiti in Tehran. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - As US sanctions on Iran deepen, the Tehran government and the Trump administration are stepping up a public relations battle that involves bitter accusations of cutting medical supplies for civilians and charges of spreading “evil” throughout the Middle East.

US President Donald Trump, who pulled the United States out of the international nuclear agreement with Iran in May, unleashed a barrage of sanctions against Iran’s oil, shipping and financial sectors. The move is aimed at forcing Tehran to change its regional policies and to agree to stricter rules preventing the development of nuclear weapons.

Iran is portraying the sanctions as inhumane while Washington is painting a picture of an aggressive regime that fans militancy abroad and brutally suppresses dissent at home. Both sides focus on their domestic audiences in the angry dispute, said Hasan Yalcin, director of Strategic Studies at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, an Istanbul think-tank.

“Iran is selling anti-Americanism at home, while Trump is selling anti-Iranianism at home,” Yalcin said. He said he doubted that the effects of sanctions would be enough to shake the government in Tehran. “The regime in Iran is very stable,” he said. “They have withstood 40 years of sanctions, things have always been bad” economically.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the US sanctions were meant “to starve the civilian population,” which was a “crime against humanity. The United States said humanitarian and medical supplies are excluded from the sanctions but Zarif used his Twitter account to release letters he said were from international pharmaceutical firms informing their Iranian partners that they were ceasing shipments to Iran due to the sanctions.

Tehran also rejected Trump’s accusations that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. The IRNA news agency said Iran’s ambassador to Vienna-based international organisations, Kazem Gharibabadi, said the nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency had again verified Iran’s commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the 2015 nuclear deal is formally known.

The International Monetary Fund forecast that the sanctions will cause Iran’s economy to contract 1.5% this year and 3.6% next year and the US administration said it will tighten the screws further. “We think the government is under real pressure and it’s our intention to squeeze them very hard,” Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said. “As the British say, squeeze them until the pips squeak.”

The Trump administration is keen to highlight what it calls the “evil” approach by Tehran on regional affairs in the Middle East. Nathan Sales, the US coordinator for counterterrorism, said Tehran was spending nearly $1 billion a year on Hezbollah in Lebanon and other militant organisations. “I’d be tempted to make a ‘Doctor Evil’ reference if the stakes weren’t so high,” Sales said in a speech at the Washington Institute, referring to a movie villain.

“Who ultimately pays the price of this support? The Iranian people,” Sales said. “The resources Iran uses to fund its global terrorist campaign come directly out of the pockets of ordinary Iranians. The regime robs its own citizens to pay its proxies abroad.”

Sales announced that the US State Department had declared Jawad Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, to be a “global terrorist,” meaning any US-based assets will be blocked and Americans will be forbidden from any transactions with him. In addition, the US Treasury introduced sanctions against four representatives of Hezbollah in Iraq.

Iran also faces accusations of having hatched plots to kill dissidents in Denmark and France, at a time when Tehran needs EU support to keep its international trade going despite Trump’s sanctions.

Tehran’s domestic actions have come under scrutiny as well. Iranian opposition groups and human rights organisations say there are reports that Iranian authorities executed 22 members of the Ahvazi Arab minority arrested for their suspected involvement in an attack on troops that killed 24 people in Ahvaz in Khuzestan province in September.

The group Iran Human Rights Monitor said relatives were informed of the executions but authorities refused to hand over the bodies for burial. Amnesty International said activists reported that suspects had been executed in secret.

“If confirmed, the secret executions of these men would be not only a crime under international law but also an abhorrent violation of their right to life and a complete mockery of justice, even by the shocking standards of Iran’s judicial system,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Iran denied that the men were executed. “This is an utterly false report,” Khuzestan Governor Gholamreza Shariati told IRNA. Shariati said suspects accused of involvement in the September attack had had the charges explained to them.